Flashback to the 2020 Summer Olympics

Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast ever, got so discombobulated by the pressure she felt to win at the Olympics that she walked away from a competition she was expected to completely dominate.

Allostatic overload refers to the cumulative impact of chronic exposure to stressful circumstances which can eventually lead to overwhelm and breakdown. However intense the overload for Simone Biles and other Olympic athletes, the reality is that we are living in a period of shared allostatic overload.

Consider the persistence of the Covid 19 pestilence. Fierce political and racial polarization. Widening income inequality. Ever more disastrous climate change in the form of extreme heat, wildfires, and drought, alongside tornadoes, hurricanes, and flooding.

Taken together, these challenges have prompted a blend of helplessness, uncertainty, fear, and anger which continues to take a toll on our collective mental health, well-being, confidence, and effectiveness.

So how do we take better care of ourselves? And how, in turn, do we take better care of each other, including those we lead, manage or influence?

Rest is Required for Professionals to Manage Stress

Treating the symptoms is surprisingly straightforward. We first learned this lesson from our early work with elite athletes. At their best, these athletes were geniuses at managing work-rest ratios. They understood instinctively that the greater the demand they faced, the greater the need for intermittent rest and renewal – not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally.

The same is true for the rest of us. Regular renewal fuels more sustainable performance.

The challenge, especially in large organizations, is that many leaders continue to operate from a binary paradigm which is narrow and punishing. More work, for longer, is nearly always preferable. If you aren’t “better than,” you are “less than.” If you’re not unequivocally right, you are wrong. And if you don’t win in every circumstance, you are a loser.

The most common reaction is fear, which narrows our vision and limits our options, prompting us to focus on surviving rather than thriving, reacting instead of reflecting, and staying safe rather than growing and learning.

It’s a zero-sum game. The more energy we feel compelled to spend defending our own value, the faster we get depleted, and the less energy we have available to create value in the world.

When we don’t feel good enough, we fall back on several default responses:

Doubling down on what’s worked well for us in the past, not recognizing that pushing ourselves ever harder ultimately leads to breakdown, as it did for Simone Biles.

Criticizing, judging, blaming, and shaming ourselves for our limitations and shortcomings, which only adds another level of pressure to our burden.
Blaming others and disclaiming responsibility for our shortcomings.
Pushing away vulnerable feelings altogether by denying them or finding ways to numb ourselves with distractions ranging from alcohol and drugs to social media and work itself.

None of these defaults work very well. Is there a better way in a world in which demand is rising so relentlessly? One counterintuitive answer is to accept and embrace all of who we are, for better and for worse.

Acknowledging the Multiple Parts of Ourselves

The psychologist Richard Schwartz argues persuasively that we are not a single stable self, but rather that we have multiple “parts.” From this perspective, the worst things that we feel about ourselves are likely true – often truer than we care to contemplate — but they’re not all that’s true. A part is not the whole, and the more of ourselves we can see and accept, the more choice we have about how to respond in any given circumstance.

But who do you want running your show? Is it one or another of your parts, or do you have a self which is best equipped to create harmony among all the players in your internal orchestra? One way to know is to ask yourself this simple question when you encounter a difficult challenge or conflict: “What would my best and most capable self do in this circumstance?”

However difficult it may be to access a calmer, wiser, more compassionate, self in times of high stress, we each have one available. This self is capable of taking into account all of our parts. Think for a moment about a time when your child, or a child you love, was inconsolable and you instinctively responded at your best. This same self is also capable of caring for the parts of you that feel defensive, overwhelmed, or inadequate.

So what is the role of leaders in dealing with the overwhelm so many of their employees are feeling?

Leaders Can Model How to Manage Energy

Leaders are effectively “Chief Energy Officers” by virtue of the disproportionate impact they have on the energy of others. To be a great leader in these times requires becoming a bigger human being – one with the capacity to challenge and inspire, but also to empathize with and care for those they lead, in all their complexity.

We observed this vividly while working with a CEO and his senior team at an offsite recently. A primary issue for the team was building a greater sense of mutual trust and commitment to one another. The CEO began the meeting by talking with great openness and honesty about the shortcomings he recognized in his own leadership. The tension in the room palpably receded as he spoke, and the tone he set prompted his team members to speak with equal candor about their own shortcomings and concerns, and how they could support one another.

Simone Biles redefined winning during the last two weeks at the Olympics by listening to her own deepest needs and taking good care of herself. “We’re always told to push through it,” Biles said afterwards. “At the end of the day, we’re not just entertainment, we’re human.”