August 25, 2008

Good day, team,

Lately, one group of my clients is going through a particularly stressful time. From what I can see, their stress is a result of uncertainty about the company’s direction and confusion about who’s in charge. This is a deadly combination for people trying to understand what they’re responsible for and where they fit in, not to mention for getting results.

The state of mind that often prevails in stressful environments is disengagement. Frankly, it’s just too difficult to work in a place where you don’t know what you’re working toward, so you just show up every day, and you don’t commit to anything: It’s not safe to do so. Entire work forces can become unproductive in these circumstances, so I think it’s important to understand more about what’s actually happening to us when we become too stressed.

Here is an excerpt about the chemistry of stress from “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership” by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatizis; it appears in the September 2008 edition of the Harvard Business Review. (The entire article is well worth reading.)

“When people are under stress, surges in stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol strongly affect their reasoning and cognition. At low levels, cortisol facilitates thinking and other mental functions, so well-timed pressure to perform and targeted critiques of subordinates certainly have their place. When a leader’s demands become too great for a subordinate to handle, however, soaring cortisol levels and an added hard kick of adrenaline can paralyze the mind’s critical abilities. Attention fixates on the threat from the boss rather than the work at hand; memory, planning and creativity go out the window. People fall back on old habits, no matter how unsuitable those are for addressing new challenges.

“Poorly delivered criticism and displays of anger by leaders are common triggers of hormonal surges. In fact, when laboratory scientists want to study the highest levels of stress hormones, they simulate a job interview in which an applicant receives intense face-to-face criticism—an analogue of a boss tearing apart a subordinate’s performance.

“Researchers likewise find that when someone who is very important to a person expresses contempt or disgust toward him, his stress circuitry triggers an explosion of stress hormones and a spike in heart rate by 30 to 40 beats person minutes. Then, because of the interpersonal dynamic of mirror neurons and oscillators, the tension spreads to other people. Before you know it, the destructive emotions have infected an entire group and inhibited its performance. Leaders are themselves not immune to the contagion of stress. All the more reason they should take time to understand the biology of emotions.”

Your challenge this week is to check your stress levels and try to regain balance for your heart, mind and body. Perhaps you’ve noticed a tendency to disengage when you’re at work. If that’s the case, try finding one particular thing you really love doing and focus on that for awhile. Passion naturally re-engages us, and lends us a new source of energy. Maybe you find yourself becoming negative toward your co-workers. Try getting some exercise at lunchtime to counter these feelings: Burn off that extra negative energy you’re experiencing. If you find that your behavior is having a negative impact on others, try asking for help. Allow someone you’re close to on the team know that you’re having a hard time and could use help seeing things in a more positive light. Experiment with meditation techniques. Recent studies have proven that daily meditation reduces high blood pressure, high levels of cortisol, migraine headaches, and a number of other high stress symptoms.

Whatever your experience of stress, remember that it’s not just your brain that does the work: A healthy body and an open heart are necessary to face each day as it comes, with all of its successes and failures. If you’re running at a deficit, figure out what you need to do to turn that loss into a gain. And chill out from time to time throughout the day. It might just help you think more clearly and creatively while it supports your body’s ability to be stress free.

Have a great week!


Kathleen Doyle-White
Pathfinders Coaching
(503) 296-9249

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