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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Jun 24, 2022


Research demonstrates that showing stress can lead to greater support from others.



Welcome to episode 143 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we explore at how showing stress can lead to greater support from others.

Have you ever thought about why we demonstrate stress? Surely showing signs of stress to others puts us at a disadvantage. Why would we want to show weakness? And why do even the most accomplished professionals still show signs of stress?

Researchers from Nottingham Trent University and the University of Portsmouth recently reinforced what we already know - people are pretty good at identifying stress in others. As people feel more stressed, others notice more stress in them - there’s nothing revolutionary about that finding. However they took it one step further to examine the impact of those stress signs on others. It turns out that people reacted more positively to those who demonstrated signs of stress than those who didn’t. Those who demonstrated signs of stress were seen as more likeable. So why might that be the case? The researchers highlighted that human beings are largely a cooperative species - we survive and thrive by helping each other. They theorised that an honest sign of weakness may show that we are willing to cooperate, or at least that we’re not a threat. 

All of this builds on a body of research that suggests being more emotionally expressive helps us to be well-liked by others and results in more positive social interactions. 

Here are some thoughts based on this research that you can take and apply:

  1. Show your emotions - the goal of emotional intelligence isn’t to become emotionless. In fact, showing no emotion may lead us to be seen as competitive or difficult to read.

  2. Encourage others - when someone does show signs of stress, provide them with some support and encouragement. Imagine yourself in that situation and how much a kind word would help.

  3. Don’t overdo it - one of the worst ways to start a speech is saying “I’m really nervous”. People want someone they can relate to, but also someone that they can be confident in.

  4. Rewrite your emotions - if you feel stressed or nervous, reframe that as wanting to do a good job or being excited to present work that matters to you.

Stress isn’t necessarily bad. We can use our own and others’ stress as a way to build connections and cooperation.



Jamie Whitehouse, Sophie J. Milward, Matthew O. Parker, Eithne Kavanagh, Bridget M. Waller. Signal value of stress behaviourEvolution and Human Behavior, 2022; DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2022.04.001