Identifying stress: a ‘how to’ introduction for senior leaders

Whilst senior leaders are very astute when it comes to being aware of what’s happening around them in a business sense, they often fail to notice what’s going on inside of themselves. This can be a costly oversight when you consider that it’s what’s going on inside that largely dictates the actions we take, the relationships we build and the impact we create.

The first step to ‘getting out of your own way’ is to develop that inner awareness. In other words, watch out for things going wrong such as: tightness in your stomach; the surprise when your proposal isn’t chosen; the joy of making your mentor proud. Under strain, it becomes harder to think clearly and the number of possible solutions you can generate drops. Without using your inner awareness and realising this is happening, you’re more likely to follow a path you might not have otherwise chosen.

How to develop inner awareness

Pick a practice and stick with it for 30 days to start seeing results:

  • Take an inventory. Once a day, pause what you’re doing and turn your attention to yourself. As yourself: What’s on my mind? How do I feel? Is my body calm or agitated – what physical sensations do I notice?
  • Label your thoughts and feelings. Once a day, put labels to what you’re thinking and feeling. For example, if you’re thinking “things like this never work” you might give a label like “skepticism” or “cynicism” to the thought, and “discouraged” to the feeling.
  • Listen to your inner self. Once a day, pause for a moment and consider what you notice about yourself, then write down your observations. For example, you might think “I seem bored” or “I’m excited about a new client and already formulating a project plan”.

Exercises like these tap into your inner awareness, enabling you to observe and notice your internal experience in real time. This means that when stress levels rise, you’ll recognise what’s happening before you do things you might regret later.


This article is adapted from Manage your stress by monitoring your body’s reactions to it, by Author Erica Ariel Fox, published in Harvard Business Review [Oct 2017]