This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.
Unlike in Thag’s day, however, most of our modern stressors cannot be solved in the simple, direct fashion that worked so well for Thag. Faced with a tiger, Thag stabs it with a spear or he runs away. In either case, Thag gets to use all that energy his body is providing. Today, though, that approach is rarely quite so effective. While drop kicking our laptop across the room might feel satisfying at the moment, in the long run it’s likely to only increase our stress levels. And, no matter how much we might dream, bringing a spear to work is going to attract some very strange looks, many of them from men in blue uniforms or white coats. Nor do we get to run screaming from the office. The net result is that we’re all revved up with nowhere to go. Instead of helping us focus, we end up physically and mentally tense, unable to concentrate because we are “looking” for danger.
One of the interesting, and in this case irritating, factors in how we deal with stressful situations is that we use our own stress response to help us recognize when we should be having a stress response! In other words, it’s not just that our fight/flight response activates when the tiger appears; it’s that if our fight/flight response is activated, we assume there must be a tiger around somewhere. If we can’t find the tiger, we rev up even more. As you might imagine, having our fight/flight response activate even before we are consciously aware of the danger can buy us those critical fractions of a second that can make the difference between life and death. The price for that capability, however, is that our modern stressors can trap us in a vicious cycle of increasing stress responses. This is not good; once we rev up past a certain point, performance collapses. Even without that, we are not built to have our fight/flight response active for long periods of time. Remember that when we’re directing all our power to the weapons and shields, there’s not much left for life support. When fight/flight is active for long periods, it interferes with healing, digestion, blood pressure, and sleep. Long-term, we become more vulnerable to sickness and injury: anything from indigestion and distractibility to more serious problems such as reduced attentional capacity, high blood-pressure, and heart disease. On a very short-term, practical, level, stress has the potential to short-circuit everything we’ve discussed in earlier chapters about team development, motivation, goal setting, and the organizational narrative. Highly stressed people will often be compliant, but they are not actively committed to the organization’s goals, thus killing the High Performance Cycle. When the water is boiling, creativity, cooperation, and effective problem-solving are amongst the first things to go: stressed out people are more critical, more impulsive, more easily irritated by trivial incidents. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of too much stress is when trivial issues quickly escalate into intense, pointless conflict.
The other sneaky problem with stress is that stressors are not independent of one another. Stress is cumulative: it doesn’t take a major traumatic event to push our fight/flight response into overdrive. A great many small stressors add up to a large stress response. The daily hassles of life, frustration at work, a distressing political or economic climate, can all help trigger our stress response and keep it active even when there is no immediate physical danger. Thus, that one additional request you are making of your employees might not seem like much by itself, but can trigger a major outbreak of bad temper or collapse performance if it comes after a series of major changes or reorganizations or during a period when everyone is frantically working to hit a deadline. I’m still amazed when a company ramps up the stress level right around Christmas: so many people are already stressed out around the holidays that adding to it does not help.
The trick to dealing effectively with stress is in understanding how to maintain the right level of stress: we want people to feel excited and engaged. When the levels of stress are appropriate, that’s exactly what happens. When they get out of hand, though, is when individual and organizational performance breaks down. We also need to understand how to manage stress: Olympic athletes, after all, thrive under conditions of extreme stress. They have learned the trick of being physically revved up and mentally relaxed, giving them the best of both worlds and enabling them to perform at an incredible level.
Balzac preaches real engagement with one’s own company and a mindful state of operation, especially by executives – who must remember that culture “just happens” unless and until they learn to recognize that their behaviors play a huge part in creating and cementing it. It covers the full spectrum of corporate life, from challenging bad decisions to hiring, training, motivating teams – and the secrets of keeping people engaged and learning – and/or avoiding actions which do the opposite. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to participate in creating and steering company culture.
Chief Technology Officer
Attivio – Active Intelligence