REACH2: Six tips to help regulate stress levels in our organizations

Recent­ly, an employ­ee at a major Ohio com­pa­ny lost his moth­er to coro­n­avirus. Under nor­mal cir­cum­stances, his col­leagues would have offered expres­sions of sup­port and sym­pa­thy in per­son. They would have attend­ed a funer­al or memo­r­i­al ser­vice. They would have made a meal for his fam­i­ly. But, since the state was under stay-at-home orders, none of that was possible.

At first, the team looked to their man­ag­er for guid­ance about what to do. But the man­ag­er hadn’t faced a sit­u­a­tion like this and didn’t real­ly know. So, he reflect­ed the ques­tion back to his team: “What do you think we can do to help?”

The team sug­gest­ed a Zoom call that evening. A 30-minute plan­ning call turned into 90 min­utes of shar­ing their feel­ings and brain­storm­ing how to express their sym­pa­thy, but also check­ing in on one anoth­er and even find­ing some humor in each other’s sto­ries of being cooped up at home. By start­ing a dia­logue and lis­ten­ing to their sug­ges­tions, the man­ag­er helped indi­vid­u­als to cope with their grief while enabling them to col­lab­o­rate on a solu­tion. The expe­ri­ence opened up the team to new ideas and ways of adapt­ing to high­ly con­fus­ing and uncer­tain times.

Whether you are a man­ag­er, teacher, physi­cian, nurse, coun­selor, or cler­ic, you are a leader in your orga­ni­za­tion and com­mu­ni­ty. In times of uncer­tain­ty and dis­tress, it’s often hard to know how to best help oth­ers, much less moti­vate them to con­tin­ue per­form­ing, learn­ing, and grow­ing. This can be espe­cial­ly dif­fi­cult in the midst of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, which is chang­ing how you work, how you learn, how you play, and how you communicate.

Many of your col­leagues, clients, patients, and stu­dents are expe­ri­enc­ing finan­cial stress, uncer­tain­ty, and fear. It’s under­stand­able for you to feel utter­ly helpless—and it’s nat­ur­al to cling to the sta­tus quo, urg­ing peo­ple to stick to dead­lines, assigned tasks, and as-nor­mal-as-pos­si­ble rou­tines. But that would be a mistake.

As we explain in our new book Help­ing Peo­ple Change, the best lead­ers and coach­es seek to con­nect with and under­stand oth­ers. They pri­or­i­tize their team’s needs and cre­ate an envi­ron­ment of trust and sup­port. They attend to build­ing rela­tion­ships, not just com­plet­ing tasks. They moti­vate oth­ers to adapt, devel­op, per­se­vere, and per­form, even in the most try­ing of times, through a process we refer to as coach­ing with compassion.

Coaching with compassion

In the face of uncer­tain­ty, it is tempt­ing to slip into taskmas­ter mode and resort to sim­ply telling oth­ers what to do in order to fix a prob­lem or improve a sit­u­a­tion. We call that coach­ing for com­pli­ance because the aim is com­pli­ance to some exter­nal stan­dard of how a per­son should behave or what they should accom­plish. That can some­times work when the con­text is pre­dictable and known and the goal is clear­ly and dis­crete­ly defined, such as coach­ing a sales­per­son to achieve quar­ter­ly goals. But none of these char­ac­ter­is­tics apply to peri­ods of volatil­i­ty and distress.

Research sug­gests that coach­ing for com­pli­ance often leads to an out­come that is the oppo­site of what we desire. The indi­vid­ual can feel pres­sured or oblig­at­ed, which acti­vates a phys­i­o­log­i­cal state known as the “neg­a­tive emo­tion­al attrac­tor.” This state involves the body’s stress response sys­tem, which is essen­tial for our fight-or-flight instinct, but will inhib­it a person’s abil­i­ty to actu­al­ly learn, grow, and change. When the neg­a­tive emo­tion­al attrac­tor is trig­gered, a per­son is like­ly to become defen­sive and closed down emo­tion­al­ly, cog­ni­tive­ly, and physiologically.

Coach­ing with com­pas­sion, on the oth­er hand, involves help­ing oth­ers to uncov­er or dis­cov­er their ideas, feel­ings, hopes, and dreams and then sup­port­ing them in their efforts to adapt and change. This approach empha­sizes the needs of the indi­vid­ual or group, rather than the agen­da of the leader, and pri­or­i­tizes build­ing a res­o­nant rela­tion­ship with oth­ers. A res­o­nant rela­tion­ship is one anchored in mutu­al trust, where the leader takes inten­tion­al steps to notice people’s efforts and express grat­i­tude, as well as sus­pend judg­ment and deeply listen.

Con­nect­ing and coach­ing with com­pas­sion acti­vates an alter­nate phys­i­o­log­i­cal state, known as the “pos­i­tive emo­tion­al attrac­tor.” When we cre­ate res­o­nant rela­tion­ships with oth­ers, pos­i­tive emo­tions are unleashed and the per­son is like­ly to feel more con­fi­dent, hope­ful, and open to con­sid­er­ing new ideas. This also cre­ates a sense of renew­al for both par­ties in the rela­tion­ship, thus reduc­ing the neg­a­tive effects of stress.

In two of our brain imag­ing stud­ies, we found that when peo­ple dis­cussed their dream or per­son­al vision with a coach for 30 min­utes, it acti­vat­ed the brain net­works that enable us to be open to new ideas and oth­er peo­ple. In con­trast, 30 min­utes of dis­cussing their cur­rent prob­lems sup­pressed these net­works. This effect explains why 25 to 35 year olds who receive coach­ing see a dra­mat­ic improve­ment in their emo­tion­al and social intel­li­gence that lasts for years.

How to coach with compassion

We have more oppor­tu­ni­ties to lead and coach with com­pas­sion than we often real­ize, but it requires us to be inten­tion­al about being aware of our­selves and oth­ers and about cul­ti­vat­ing empa­thy in our con­ver­sa­tions and rela­tion­ships. Quite sim­ply, we need to remem­ber to “REACH2”—to fol­low the six steps below as we strive to help others.

R stands for res­o­nance. Lead­ers need to reach out and con­nect in ways that are in sync and in tune with oth­ers’ thoughts, feel­ings, and expe­ri­ences. The goal is to cre­ate a sup­port­ive, trust­ing, pos­i­tive rela­tion­ship in which you are focused on the oth­er per­son over yourself.

In one orga­ni­za­tion, for exam­ple, a man­ag­er carved out 30-minute win­dows of time at the begin­ning of each work­day and invit­ed indi­vid­u­als on his team to join him vir­tu­al­ly. He called it “cof­fee with Kevin.” His inten­tion was to check in with each per­son with­out hav­ing a laun­dry list of tasks to cov­er. Once peo­ple slow­ly start­ed to attend, Kevin was shocked at how much he didn’t know about the indi­vid­u­als on his team, and how much he enjoyed get­ting to know them bet­ter. This sim­ple act enabled him to feel more con­nect­ed to them in reward­ing ways.

E reminds us to lead with empa­thy. We need to shift our con­cern from want­i­ng to be under­stood to under­stand­ing others.

At one U.S. uni­ver­si­ty, the cam­pus closed abrupt­ly and cours­es tran­si­tioned online as cas­es of COVID-19 accel­er­at­ed. One pro­fes­sor received an email from a stu­dent ask­ing for an exten­sion on her final course paper, worth one-third of her grade. The stu­dent explained how she had returned to Spain to help her fam­i­ly, whose busi­ness was in trou­ble amid the pan­dem­ic, and she was now work­ing 14-hour days and strug­gling to con­cen­trate in school.

The pro­fes­sor had a choice—to urge the stu­dent to pri­or­i­tize school, share her con­cerns, or just dis­cuss the details of the assign­ment and avoid the oth­er top­ics alto­geth­er. She put her­self in the student’s shoes and imag­ined the stress of the sit­u­a­tion. She knew the assign­ment required focus and crit­i­cal think­ing, which would be dif­fi­cult to muster even in nor­mal con­di­tions. She ulti­mate­ly agreed to a one-week exten­sion, which in turn lift­ed a heavy bur­den from the student’s shoul­ders and enabled her to fin­ish the semes­ter on a pos­i­tive note.

A is about being aware of your­self and oth­ers. Before you can help oth­ers, you need to be clear on your mind­set and emo­tions and their impact on the peo­ple and the envi­ron­ment around you. Emo­tions are con­ta­gious; so when you lead with joy, hope, humor, and love, oth­ers feel that. And when you lead with fear, anger, dis­ap­point­ment, and dis­gust, that rubs off on oth­ers, too.

One way to improve your self-aware­ness is to prac­tice deep breath­ing exer­cis­es. Becom­ing aware of your breath can help you to calm your mind and your body and enable you to tune into your­self. Prac­tic­ing deep breath­ing also helps you to reset your mind and body so that you can respond appro­pri­ate­ly. For you, that might be before an impor­tant meet­ing that is like­ly to get heat­ed or after read­ing an email from a col­league with unso­licit­ed, con­struc­tive crit­i­cism on your work—or, real­ly, any time you feel your neck stiff­en and your heart start racing.

C rep­re­sents con­nect­ing with com­pas­sion. When we act from a place of com­pas­sion, we focus on the needs of oth­ers and respond in mean­ing­ful ways. Coach­ing oth­ers with com­pas­sion empha­sizes car­ing, warmth, and ten­der­ness to help anoth­er per­son in their pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment. We often have a front-row seat to expres­sions of emo­tion in oth­ers, run­ning the gamut from joy to sad­ness to anger. When you demon­strate com­pas­sion in help­ing roles, you lis­ten and respond to the emo­tions beyond the person’s words.

For exam­ple, in a recent ses­sion, a coachee in our net­work welled up with tears in response to a ques­tion posed by her coach. The coach paused, allowed her to catch her breath, and then said, “I can see that struck a chord. Did you want to talk more about what’s behind the tears?” In sit­u­a­tions like this, our ten­den­cy might be to ignore the person’s expres­sion of emo­tion and con­tin­ue with the dis­cus­sion as if noth­ing hap­pened. The prob­lem is that you dis­miss the per­son in the process and send the mes­sage that you don’t care about their feel­ings, which in turn may cause them to close down further.

H is about spread­ing hope. You unleash pos­i­tive emo­tions and uplift oth­ers when you help them to envi­sion a brighter and bet­ter future. In the face of uncer­tain­ty, the ten­den­cy can be to suc­cumb to wor­ry, fear, and anx­i­ety. Inten­tion­al­ly spread­ing hope is about acknowl­edg­ing the dif­fi­cul­ty and also the pos­si­bil­i­ties. In coach­ing con­ver­sa­tions, that can take shape by remind­ing the oth­er per­son of their strengths as well as your belief in their abil­i­ty to get through the peri­od of uncer­tain­ty. You can help oth­ers tap into hope by ask­ing them what is pos­si­ble now that wasn’t as like­ly before.

H also refers to the pow­er of humor. Stress shuts us down to new ideas and expe­ri­ences. It also makes us less like­ly to find things fun­ny or amus­ing or be play­ful. By keep­ing things light, you remind oth­ers to keep smil­ing. Hav­ing a sense of humor and pro­mot­ing laugh­ter in the work­place has been shown to reduce stress and increase sat­is­fac­tion, pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, and performance.

Con­sid­er, for exam­ple, a team who made a siz­able error that caused them to sig­nif­i­cant­ly over­state their department’s quar­ter­ly fore­cast in the organization’s end-of-year pro­jec­tions. When they sat down with their man­ag­er to dis­close the error, you could feel the ten­sion in the air as they await­ed what would sure­ly be an angry out­burst. Instead, the man­ag­er paused for a moment, then smiled and said, “I guess I need to call the car deal­er­ship and can­cel my order for that Porsche.”

Every­one laughed, and imme­di­ate­ly you could feel the ten­sion in the room dis­si­pate. They were in a much bet­ter place men­tal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly to have a pro­duc­tive dis­cus­sion about how they could best address the issue and pre­vent any future errors. Using humor didn’t make the prob­lem go away, but it did sig­nal to every­one that it wasn’t the end of the world and that togeth­er they could come up with a cre­ative solution.

The most pow­er­ful way to ame­lio­rate the stress and uncer­tain­ty we are feel­ing is to reach out and help oth­ers. This can be in small dos­es by help­ing them laugh, help­ing them fig­ure out how they want to act, or stim­u­lat­ing in them a moment of dis­cov­ery. In high­ly uncer­tain times, instead of quick­ly jump­ing into advice-giv­ing mode or falling back on the often-dys­func­tion­al approach of telling peo­ple what to do, we have a rare oppor­tu­ni­ty. By reach­ing out and con­nect­ing with com­pas­sion, we encour­age oth­ers to be open, and to learn, change, and devel­op in mean­ing­ful ways dur­ing this time of crisis.

– This essay has been adapt­ed from Help­ing Peo­ple Change: Coach­ing with Com­pas­sion for Life­long Learn­ing and Growth (Har­vard Busi­ness Review Press, 2019, 256 pages). Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altruism.

Richard Boy­atzis is a Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sor at Case West­ern Reserve Uni­ver­si­ty and an adjunct pro­fes­sor at the inter­na­tion­al ESADE Busi­ness School.

Melvin Smith is a pro­fes­sor and the Fac­ul­ty Direc­tor of Exec­u­tive Edu­ca­tion at the Weath­er­head School of Man­age­ment at Case West­ern Reserve University.

Ellen Van Oost­en is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Weath­er­head School of Man­age­ment and Direc­tor of the Coach­ing Research Lab, which she found­ed with Richard Boy­atzis and Melvin Smith in 2014.

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SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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