Harold Lloyd in 'Safety Last!', 1923, directed by Fed C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, produced by Hal Roach Studios
Ideas for Leaders #242

Managing Stress by Building Resilience

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Key Concept

Many people in the business world today are experiencing high levels of stress, and corporate burnout is becoming a worryingly common phenomenon. According to this Idea, there is a way out that involves four simple steps. By making these steps a habit and therefore a natural part of your being, you can lead yourself to a better and more productive lifestyle.

Idea Summary

There is no such thing as a stressful job or a stressful boss; in fact, all stress comes down to something called ‘rumination’ — the mental process of thinking over and over again about a past or future event with which negative emotion is attached. This is the notion put forward by the Center for Creative Leadership’s Nick Petrie, who discusses the work of Dr Derek Roger on stress and resilience in a 2013 white paper.

According to Roger’s work, stress levels are not determined by external factors in our environment; rather, it is the way we think and react that influences how stressed-out we feel. In particular, people who ruminate a lot have chronically elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol, whereas non-ruminators may also have plenty of pressure in their lives but do not get stressed by it.

Such rumination can of course be detrimental to health, disastrous for productivity and ruinous for happiness. Yet many people in the working life experience this every day, and eventually when they are unable to see solutions, often simply continue until they completely burnout.

Based on Roger’s research, Petrie highlights four steps that can help executives become less stressed and more resilient:

  1. Wake up (and stay awake): in other words, 'come to your senses'. Stop dreaming about the past or the future; instead, be in the present.
  2. Control your attention: understand the power of attention. The key to controlling it is to practise consciously putting your attention where you want it to be and holding it there. Keep your attention directed in the present (i.e. what you can see, hear or feel).
  3. Detach: this is the ability to get appropriate distance from the situation being faced. This helps to maintain perspective and only focus on what can be controlled.
  4. Let go: a refusal to let go of things is at the core of why people continue to ruminate. Ask the question: “will continuing to focus on this help me, my people or organization?” If the answer is no, let it go.

Repetition of these four steps is the key, says Petrie. As if they are repeated again and again, the brain creates a new habit, and soon executives will not have to consciously do this; it becomes their way of being.

Business Application

Petrie also suggests three short, practical actions to help to start building the four steps above into a new mental habit:

  • Look from the loft: this visual metaphor brings together all four steps in one place. Imagine yourself at the top of a house, looking down at it being flooded with the things that are causing you to feel stressed; now, think about dealing with this problem by applying the four steps.
  • Find your flow activity: engage in activities that bring you into a state of flow (i.e. help you become focused on the present and absorbed in the task at hand). Examples include gardening, sports and playing a musical instrument.
  • Meditation: both single pointed meditation (i.e. focusing the mind on a single word, phrase or breathing) and mindfulness meditation (simply closing your eyes and observing whatever comes into your awareness) are described by Petrie as extremely powerful ways to increase resilience and practise the four steps.
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Idea conceived

  • August 2013

Idea posted

  • October 2013

DOI number



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