Don’t Be Mistaken about Stress — Use It to Aim and Fire not Shoot Yourself in the Foot


For type A’s, stress is the fuel in the engine; for entrepreneurs, it’s our bread and butter. Anyone who has felt the thrill of envisioning the impossible or defied all odds to deliver on a commitment knows that stress is the key ingredient to success. That little voice saying, “no, you’re not done yet, you know this isn’t good enough and you won’t stop until it’s better” is often what distinguishes a good try from a great triumph.

Anyone who has ever tried a new venture or even led a team through a great trial will tell you that the pressure to stay afloat can overwhelm everything else. Founding a new business, getting it on track to deliver for investors and staying ‘in flow’ often trump the intentions of building a supportive culture at work, being present with one’s family and even just reveling in personal free time. But are entrepreneurs and business leaders right not to make balance a priority from the get go? To entrepreneurs who say they can’t afford to make balance a goal from day one, I’ll counter: can you afford not to?

Stress is a funny thing—kind of like eating—in that you need the fuel to keep going, but chronic stress, like constantly eating, backfires. Chronic stress and a prevailing atmosphere of pressure at work runs us down, fogs our memory and diminishes or deprives our sleep quality. At its worst, stress creates tension between work and home, seeping into the lives of your family and friends. I can say from personal experience that even if you are an adrenaline junkie – an ER doc , an professional athlete or CEO of a start up – daily, unchecked stress will make you unproductive, sick and miserable.

Taking a page from the best in resilience training, we can manage the entrepreneurial environment for stress so it doesn’t handicap the team, the energy and the culture of productivity; when managed successfully, stress can support that team:

Create a shared sense of purpose. Rather than leaving your contributors to worry over their individual performances and the high stakes of their every move, which can seem especially consequential in the early stages of a venture, inspire them to sign on to your collective goal. People perform better when they are happily engaged in what they do, so keeping them attached to meaningful work will harness their best efforts. Entrepreneurs are great at articulating a vision and sharing a passion; let your employees drink some of that cool-aid so that they share in the energy which motivates you to work so tirelessly.

Think big and pay attention to what’s working: Another way to put this is “focus on what’s strong, not what’s wrong.” Ditch the small stuff and focus on the big issues and initiatives that lead to breakthroughs. These help people get a bit of swagger in their step. For someone anxious to keep up and looking to prove him or herself, a little confidence goes a long way. Leave tinkering for later on.

Less is More: Entrepreneurs and their teams rarely think about the work week as having iron clad boundaries. In the early days when the focus is on the business model, building a brand and finding your customer base, it can be easy to overlook the importance building a sustainable culture. Think of yourself as a coach preparing your team; the point if training camp is not to leave your players too burnt out for the regular season. In business, a heads-down, all-work-no-play culture may ultimately hinder productivity far more than flex time. Time off for creative endeavors or simply time away from work may have a surprisingly beneficial result in productivity for you and your employees.