Picture this: you’re sitting at your computer, working away quietly, when your colleague Toby storms past. He slams a huge pile of papers marked “URGENT” on his desk, picks up the phone, and starts barking at another colleague, Yolande, in Accounting: “I HATE when you do ABC…I’ve got enough on my plate right now!”
How do you feel about the rest of your day? Probably a little less relaxed than you were before, right? How do you think your co-worker in Accounting feels? Probably even worse than you!
In this example, Yolande would most likely have been upset by Toby’s behavior. Maybe she interpreted his remarks as a challenge to her performance or professionalism. Feeling defensive, as though her ability was being questioned, I wouldn’t have been too surprised if she took her stress out on another colleague in turn.
Perhaps Yolande went much further to defend her ideas at the next Accounting meeting, feeling the need to be right and prove herself. Or maybe she kept her frustration inside, replaying Toby’s comments over and over until it was impossible to concentrate…
Stress can often have a “domino effect” on teams. Being under strain often makes us act in ways that negatively impact team dynamics—think laughing at inappropriate moments or overreacting to a harmless joke from your colleague.
Because we work closely together, we all often suffer in the end. One person’s stressed-out reaction triggers another, who triggers another, then another, and on it goes.
Communication starts to break down, silos go up, and collective performance begins to suffer pretty soon. So how do we nip this chain reaction in the bud?
Recognizing The Domino Effect of Stress
Acknowledging the very real knock-on effects of stress is the first step to breaking the cycle. Every team has its share of environmental pressures, like tight deadlines, competition, and market volatility, but successful teams take action to intervene.
As a team coach, I recommend naming it. Choose a dedicated sign for when you notice the domino effect in action (a flag, a poster, a symbol), and don’t be afraid to point it out. The sooner you and your team can take action and do something about your stress, the sooner you can get back on track.
In the next section, I’ve put together a list of activities to help you do that.
10 Tips To Break The Cycle
A good number of stress management exercises can be done by teams collectively. Try these activities together if you want to rebuild connections and restore calm to your group.
1. 30-Minute Dance Party
You’d be surprised how many stress symptoms disappear with aerobic exercise! Sleepiness, muscle stiffness, and irritability can all take their toll on us when we’re under pressure, and moving around is a great way to get our muscles moving and our blood flowing normally.
If tensions are running high in your team, schedule a little lighthearted fun to break up your routine. This exercise can take as little as 30 seconds of your day; just put some good music on and get boogying together! Not only will you feel looser afterward, but you’ll also have a chance to laugh at yourselves and restore your good humor. If you have more time to spare, put on a playlist of your favorite songs!
2. ”Speed Date” Walk
Behavioral stress responses such as sarcasm and “needing” to be right often put unnecessary strain on team relationships. A little one-to-one time helps us reconnect as humans and rebuild connections for better dynamics and more effective collaboration.
This exercise reinvents the “speed dating” phenomenon, allowing team members to interact with each of their colleagues for several minutes. Get the whole group together outdoors and plan how long it will take for everyone to have a brief conversation with everyone else. Then get walking, chat, and watch those silos fall!
3. Informal Gratitude Practice
This sweet and simple exercise is designed to help teams realize the many benefits of gratitude: higher trust, better social relationships, and more positive affect for everyone involved. Get your team together and let each member tell the group about one thing for which they are grateful. If you have time, go around again—this exercise is a brilliant way to learn more about each other!
4. Thank You Notes
Practicing thankfulness turns our focus away from what is wrong (negativity bias) and encourages us to focus on the positive. So here’s another gratitude exercise that’s perfect for groups and encourages a very important mindset shift for stress management.
5. Guided Group Meditation
There is plenty of research supporting the efficacy of mindfulness practice as a stress management strategy. By practicing guided meditation as a group, you and your team can learn to adopt a relaxed, non-judgmental state of awareness together, breaking the domino effects of negative dynamics.
There is no reason your team can’t practice this exercise regularly, either—long-term mindfulness practice over time also helps us learn how to calm the brain’s amygdala (or“ fear center”), which is activated when we are under stress. To introduce this exercise to your group, look online for free audio meditation guides, and find a quiet place to tune in and relax together as a team.
6. Sharing Funny Moments
Failing to “find the funny” is a common reaction to feeling overwhelmed or under pressure, and it can have a knock-on effect. One way to restore a lighthearted, positive team dynamic is by deliberately finding humor in the world around us, then sharing those anecdotes with our teammates.
I introduced a similar stress-management (and teambuilding!) exercise in my article on Bursting Into Tears, another Stress! Coaching Card. Instead of searching for funny videos or jokes, this one requires no equipment. Each team member recalls the funniest thing that happened to them that week and shares it with the group—it’s a laugh!
7. Team Mantra
When defensiveness and conflict are taking a toll on team dynamics, an intervention that emphasizes togetherness is often highly effective. Team Mantra involves coming up with a phrase as a group, then repeating it together as a relaxation and bonding exercise.
When choosing a mantra together, you might consider reflecting on your team’s values or identity. What strengths do you have as a collective? What makes you special or unique? Here’s one example to inspire you: We are strong, united, and ready to overcome any challenge that stands in our way!
8. Counting Backward
Our brains race a mile a minute when we have a lot on our plate. An overemphasis on content (”What to do?” or “What could go wrong,” for example) also triggers a similar content focus in those around us. That’s the domino effect at work!
We can break vicious cycles like this by deliberately slowing our thoughts. The very simple act of counting backward from ten is a great example, and it’s as easy as it sounds to perform together.
9. In Your Shoes
Miscommunications, conflict, and poor collaboration can often be overcome by prioritizing team relationships. The more open we are to our teammates’ perspectives, the higher our collective intelligence and performance become—but it’s hard to see things the way others do in panic mode!
Various interventions can help teams work on their ability to empathize, with role-play being just one example. Break your team into pairs and give each pair a scenario to act out. Then, have them switch sides and practice “stepping into the others’ shoes” using prompts such as the following:
- What matters most to my conversation partner?
- What is impacting them and their decision right now?
- How might they see things differently from me?
10. Just Breathe
A huge number of physical stress reactions result from an overactive sympathetic nervous response—a racing heart and feeling sick are just the start. These involuntary symptoms can be stressful in themselves, affecting how we behave and those around us.
Simply stopping to breathe is often enough to break this vicious cycle and nip the domino effect in the bud. Find a quiet, distraction-free space and try this breathing exercise as a group:
- Sit comfortably and close your eyes.
- Inhale deeply and slowly, counting from one to four (you can facilitate by counting aloud). Fill your belly with each breath.
- Hold each breath for another four seconds before releasing it gently.
- Count to four as you exhale calmly and let your muscles relax.
- Repeat as many steps as you like