By Kenneth N. Wexley, Ph.D. and Douglas A. Strouse, Ph.D.

Executives often ask us, “What can I do to lower the stress that I’m experiencing now in my job and in my personal life?”

We’re not surprised by this question because we’re being bombarded everyday with catastrophic news such as the recent Las Vegas massacre, the devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico, and the forest fires in California. At work, there are many potential sources of stress, such as work overload, job insecurity, and toxic co-workers.

We’d like you to visualize for a moment a target consisting of a few concentric circles. In the center of the target is the bull’s eye. The bull’s eye contains all things which you have complete or else a great deal of control over.   The circle surrounding the bull’s eye contains those things that you cannot control, but have a great deal of influence. The outermost circle consists of those things which you have either very little or no control.

CEOs who manage stress well spend most of their time between tasks that they can control or influence. They try their best to stay clear of the outermost circle which are things outside their sphere of control. Executives who spend most time in this outermost domain are typically frustrated people. Why? Because they’re trying to gain control over things that are beyond their grasp or sphere of influence.

Try this. Sit down weekly and think about what you are facing in your position as CEO. Then, categorize these things into the three categories mentioned above (i.e., control, influence, and no control). Work on controlling your stress level by staying away from things you can’t control.

Most people have been raised to feel a lot more comfortable when there is little or no disagreement or conflict surrounding them. As discussed in “The Five Temptations of a CEO” by Patrick Lencioni, these CEOs have a low tolerance for discord. They feel stressed when they see their direct reports airing ideological differences during meetings or when others see things from a completely different perspective than they do. The best advice we can give any CEO or high-level executive is to simply start tolerating discord. Begin viewing discord as worthwhile events. Without discord you get “Group Think.” This is when your managers pretend to agree with one another and with you for the sake of maintaining cordial relations. Although Group Think can be less stressful in the short-run, it results in decisions that are weak, and this creates more stress and tension for you in the long-run.

Another excellent way of reducing stress is to change what you say to yourself when encountering stressful situations. You need to stop negative self-talk and start telling yourself positive things. Here are a few examples of what we mean by positive self-talk:

“I have had difficult financial times like this at work before, and I did a good job of handling them. I know I can get through these trying times.”

“Things seems bad now, but this could end up being one of the best things that has ever happened to our organization. There could be some great opportunities here for us. Let’s wait and see what happens.”

Another stress reducer is to consider the worst-case scenario when facing tough times. Ask yourself, “What is the worst possible thing that could happen to me in this situation? Am I going to lose my family? No. Am I going to lose my health? No. Am I going to go to jail? No. Will my organization have to declare bankruptcy? Possibly. Could I lose my company? Maybe.”

If you can accept the worst-case scenario, you’re on the road to coping with any stressful situation successfully. You have to put things into perspective. You may even be thinking to yourself that when faced with similar financial crises in the past, your company survived and you did too.

You need to take time to relax and recharge your battery. Do you do this or do you compromise your own periods of recuperation? It is important that you set aside two types of time for yourself:

  • Give yourself five minutes each day to take a mental vacation. Find a comfortable place to sit free of distractions, close your eyes, and take a series of deep breaths. While you’re doing this, create a scene in your mind that is extremely pleasant and relaxing for you. For example, you might visualize yourself on a cold winter day sitting next to a warm fire or else relaxing next to a pool on a beautiful cruise ship.
  • Take the time each week to participate in one or more activities that relax you. This could be jogging, fishing, golfing, reading, or just spending time with your family. As you try out various activities, think about whether they’re truly bringing you the relaxation you need, or whether you’re stressed about them in the same way you are at work. We’ve know too many weekend golfers who become so stressed about the way they’re playing that they might as well still be at work.

David Trapp, president of Buck Wear Inc., a casual wear manufacturer and distributor in Baltimore, makes sure that he spends a minimum of three days a week exercising for several hours at a local fitness center. He has told us several times that this physical activity helps him to cope with stress in his job.

Socrates’ famous statement, “Know Thyself,” still holds and is true today. It is the keystone of what Daniel Goleman calls “Emotional Intelligence.” This is also one of the most important things any of us can do to manage stress in our lives. How does it work? Understanding our own moods and reactions to our moods allows us to catch worrisome episodes as near to their beginnings as possible. If you can monitor the cues within yourself that signal the onset of stress, you can do two things:

  • Learn to avoid getting yourself into situations that bring on these cues
  • Learn to use relaxation methods (e.g., meditation, physical exercise, deep breathing) to prevent your stress from escalating

A CEO we knew initially reacted to the tough times in his organization by eating, thinking, breathing, and talking work. This CEO thought that the best things that could be done were to put off vacations and social events, and to throw himself into work. This CEO was wrong because this only made the stress worse.

Don’t put your life on hold. Take planned vacations, go to special events that you look forward to, and exercise regularly. If you don’t have an exercise program, start one. In addition to the health and fitness benefits, physical exercise will reduce stress. Robert Collins, president of Gerstel USA, a scientific instrumentation Linthicum Heights company, exemplifies an executive who maintains excellent work-life balance. Collins puts in numerous hours in the workplace, but also makes sure to have dinner with his family most evenings and to do activities with his children on weekends.

Often, we become stressed about things because we take others’ actions personally. Many of the irritating or frustrating interactions that we have with others have nothing to do with us personally. They are not trying to attack you, demean you, or insult you. They are simply doing what satisfies them or what they think is the right thing to do. Whenever you see yourself becoming too emotionally defensive, step back and say to yourself, “I’m not going to take this personally – it’s strictly business.” Also, learn to laugh at yourself and not take yourself so seriously.

Many of our readers are probably too young to remember a song written by Johnny Mercer years ago which contained some sagely advice. Of course, we are also too young to remember the song word-for-word but, to the best of our memory, the lyrics went something like this:

“You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and latch on to the affirmative, and don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.”

Throw your energies into being positive rather than focusing on what is upsetting and frustrating. You’ve got to always believe that “we’ll be able to work through this.” Don’t continually look for what is wrong, but search for the positives of things. Our years of experience working with executives of all types has proven to us that those who see a glass of water as being “half full rather than half empty” experience considerably less stress and aggravation from work.

CEOs, by nature, usually want to “go it alone.” But, the real successful ones realize they can alleviate stress by talking with others. When you’re feeling tense, there are usually other people who can help to alleviate it. Talking with others can provide you with an outlet to express things that are bothering you. Besides, other people can help you to develop a plan of attack for solving problems. The problem for CEOs is that it’s quite lonely at the top. It’s rare that you can find people within your own organization with whom you can confide problems. In light of this, many CEOs like you will either join an organization such as the CEO Club of Baltimore where they meet with other CEOs, or else hire their own personal executive coaches.