Mental Models

My kids love the water. They will swim in mountain streams, oceans, and down rapids. Their mental model is “the water is a fun playground”. They experience the world very differently from someone who sees the water as dangerous.

Great leaders share three mental models – sadly, the “not-so-great” leaders don’t share these and their results show.

  1. Team leads/managers/supervisors are responsible for helping their teams operate more effectively. This means learning new skills.
  2. Effective leadership is a very different skill set versus being an individual contributor. When we step up to the responsibility of leadership, we need to be aware and accepting that new skills can be emotionally challenging to learn and practice.
  3. Effective team leads will have to embrace emotional discomfort as they learn and practice their new skills. The process of emotional regulation is another set of foundational skills which shore up our ability to effectively support our teams.

Emotional discomfort (aka distress tolerance) is often the biggest hurdle for leaders with aspirations. They haven’t been trained in the skills of distress tolerance and likely they don’t even know such skills exist. Sadly, this is an issue across the world.

Distress tolerance is another learned (and practiced) skill set. When we have a distress tolerance habit, we voluntarily put ourselves in uncomfortable situations because we recognize the benefits (cold plunge anyone?). Listening to team member complaints, listening to peer complaints, listening to executive complaints, and listening to client complaints can all be emotionally challenging – and they are a gold mine of information and opportunities for improvements. Having distress tolerance makes this gold mine possible.

Mental models are the foundation for a successful leadership practice.

Effective Strategies to Mitigate Stress and Prevent Burnout

Chronic work stress is a pervasive challenge in today’s professional landscape. It can manifest as emotional exhaustion, cynicism towards work, and a sense of reduced effectiveness. Left unchecked, this stress can culminate in burnout, a state of profound depletion that significantly hinders performance and well-being.

It’s not a single event, but rather a gradual process that develops over time. Here’s a breakdown of the common signs to watch out for:

Emotional Exhaustion:

  • Feeling constantly drained and depleted of energy
  • Dreading work and feeling a sense of cynicism or negativity towards it
  • Loss of motivation and enthusiasm for your job
  • Increased feelings of irritability, frustration, or anxiety

Reduced Sense of Efficacy:

  • Doubting your abilities and feeling like you can’t perform well at work
  • A sense of helplessness and lack of control over your workload
  • Decreased productivity and a growing sense of inefficiency
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions


  • Feeling emotionally detached from your work and colleagues
  • A sense of numbness or going through the motions
  • Increased cynicism or negativity towards your job duties and co-workers
  • Feeling like your work has no meaning or impact

Understanding the Stress Response: From Fight-or-Flight to Restoration

The stress response cycle, also known as the fight-or-flight response, is a complex physiological process designed to help us deal with threats. It’s a survival mechanism honed over millennia, preparing our bodies to take action in the face of danger. Here’s a breakdown of the three main stages:

1. Alarm Stage:

This is the initial response triggered by a perceived stressor, whether it’s a looming deadline, a difficult conversation with a colleague, or even heavy traffic. The hypothalamus, a part of the brain, activates the sympathetic nervous system, which releases a surge of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

Physiological Changes:

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Faster breathing
  • Dilated pupils
  • Increased blood flow to muscles
  • Release of glucose for energy
  • Heightened senses (alertness)

Psychological Changes:

  • Increased focus and attention
  • Feeling of anxiousness or fear
  • Urge to take action (fight or flight)

2. Resistance Stage:

If the stressor persists, the body enters the resistance stage. Here, the body attempts to maintain the heightened state of arousal from the alarm stage to manage the threat.

Physiological Changes:

  • Sustained release of stress hormones
  • Increased muscle tension
  • Suppressed immune system function
  • Digestions slows down
  • Blood sugar levels remain elevated

Psychological Changes:

  • Heightened focus and alertness (can become hypervigilance)
  • Feeling of determination or perseverance
  • Difficulty relaxing

3. Exhaustion Stage:

If the stressor remains unresolved and the body continues in a heightened state for a prolonged period, it eventually reaches the exhaustion stage. This is where the body’s resources become depleted, and it can no longer maintain the fight-or-flight response.

Again, the human body possesses a sophisticated stress response system, often referred to as “fight-or-flight.” When faced with a perceived threat (e.g., a tight deadline or a demanding client), the body releases hormones like cortisol to heighten alertness and prepare for action. This surge of energy is crucial for short-term situations, but chronic stress keeps the system perpetually activated, leading to the negative consequences associated with burnout.

Research by Drs. Emily and Amelia Nagoski emphasizes the importance of completing the stress cycle. They posit that our bodies are naturally equipped to return to a state of calm, but modern work environments often disrupt this crucial process. For instance, an unresolved conflict with a colleague might trigger the fight-or-flight response, but without a conscious effort to de-stress (e.g., exercise, social interaction), the body remains tense, perpetuating a state of chronic stress.

Building Resilience: Evidence-Based Strategies for Mitigating Workplace Stress

By implementing these research-backed strategies, professionals can effectively manage stress and prevent burnout:

  • Physical Activity: Exercise mimics the “fight” portion of the stress response, enabling the body to release pent-up energy and restore balance. Consider incorporating brisk walks, yoga sessions, or even short bursts of activity throughout the workday.
  • The Power of Laughter: Studies demonstrate that humor triggers the release of endorphins, which counteract stress hormones. Integrate humor into your workday by watching funny videos, sharing lighthearted moments with colleagues, or adopting a more playful approach to challenges.
  • Mindful Breathing: Engaging in deep, slow breaths activates the relaxation response in the body. This practice lowers blood pressure and heart rate, promoting a sense of calm. Numerous online resources and apps offer guided breathing exercises.
  • The Strength of Social Connection: Social support is a potent buffer against stress. Cultivate strong professional relationships, connect with friends and family outside of work, or consider joining a support group specifically designed for professionals facing similar challenges.
  • Prioritizing Rest: When stressed, the body requires ample time for repair. Ensure you are getting adequate sleep and schedule breaks throughout the day to decompress and recharge.
  • Embracing Creativity: Engaging in creative activities like painting, writing, or playing music provides a healthy outlet for stress and facilitates emotional processing.

The Employer’s Role in all of this…

Why should companies should take a proactive approach to combating burnout and fostering a healthy work environment? The answer seems obvious.

  • Decreased Productivity and Performance: Burnout leads to a significant drop in employee effectiveness. Exhausted workers lack focus, make more mistakes, and struggle to meet deadlines. This translates to lower quality work, missed targets, and ultimately, lost revenue for the company.
  • Increased Absenteeism and Presenteeism: Burned-out employees are more likely to call in sick or be physically present but mentally checked out (presenteeism). This disrupts workflows, strains team dynamics, and creates extra burdens for colleagues who have to pick up the slack.
  • High Employee Turnover: Employees experiencing burnout are more likely to seek new opportunities. Replacing employees is a costly process involving recruitment, onboarding, and lost productivity. High turnover disrupts team dynamics and can damage company morale.
  • Negative Impact on Customer Service: Burned-out employees often lack the energy and enthusiasm to deliver exceptional customer service. This can lead to frustrated customers, damaged brand reputation, and lost business.
  • Increased Healthcare Costs: Chronic stress associated with burnout weakens the immune system and makes employees more susceptible to illness. This translates to higher healthcare costs for the company.
  • Negative Workplace Culture: Burnout can create a toxic work environment characterized by low morale, cynicism, and negativity. This can further fuel employee turnover and hinder collaboration.
  • Legal Ramifications: In some countries, severe burnout can be classified as a work-related illness, leading to potential lawsuits for employers who fail to provide a safe and healthy work environment.