Monday, February 25, 2013

Are you a good stress manager? You need to be to keep your people engaged

You may be one of those lucky people who never feel stressed. If that's you, that's fabulous - although you might want to check with your family and the people who work for you whether they agree based on what they see.

Stress is a natural and normal part of our lives. But if your heart constantly races, your shoulders are always tight, your tummy is a tangle of knots, you haven't slept properly for ages, you continually feel sick, on edge, weepy, angry etc, then your amygdala is triggering physical warning signs that you need to take notice of.

It's The Almond Effect®, the inappropriate activation of our survival response. This fight or flight reaction is designed to help us in life threatening and dangerous situations. At those times, our amygdala triggers the release of chemicals and hormones to heighten our awareness and give us a jolt of power and strength to protect ourselves from the threat. It's a short-term solution to a short-term threat.

However if we don't manage longer term stress that comes from work or home situations, our bodies stay in a stressed or alert state for much longer periods of time than is safe for us to cope with. We end up exacerbating the situation and doing even more harm to ourselves.

Not only your health but your job may be at risk
Symptoms of stress are like a smoke alarm going off. We need to do something about it, immediately. If we delay and allow stress to turn into distress, not only will we experience a negative impact on our health and personal relationships but it may prove to be a career limiting move - especially if you have aspirations to move up the corporate ladder.

Your stress impacts engagement
Why? Failure to deal with your own stress could seriously influence how people feel about working with you and for you.

One of the key elements in retaining good people and keeping them engaged is your ability to manage your stress so that it doesn't affect the people around you.

Who wants to go to work not knowing whether the boss will be ‘up' or ‘down', approachable or not, communicative or sullen, energetic or lethargic, short-tempered or easy-going, acknowledging good work or not even noticing, empathetic or distant, clear in what they want (or don't want) or has fuzzy thinking?

A statement of the obvious? Of course! Yet some people-managers think that stress is a weakness and deny its existence even when it is demonstrably clear to everyone around them that they are stressed out.
They often try to suppress or ignore the signals usually with very sad longer-term health consequences. In another issue of CLUES I'll tell you more about the impact of suppressing emotions on our bodies.

You damage yourself, your people and your organisation

Even employees with the highest level of self-awareness and management are worn down dealing with the actual or potential ramifications of your stress. And retaining your best employees and keeping all your people engaged will continue to be a major measure of your success.

So what to do about it

These are the fantastic tips from Kay Wilhelm on the Black Dog Institute website.

1. Work out priorities Keep a list - make the tasks possible. Prioritise the tasks in order of importance and tick off when done. Include the important people in your life as priorities and attend to these relationships.

2. Identify your stress situations Make a list of events that leave you emotionally drained, with one or two ways to reduce the stress for each. When they occur, use them as an opportunity to practise your stress reduction techniques, then, keep notes on what works for next time.

3. Learn to ‘reframe' statements: Don't react to imagined insults It is a waste of time and energy to be oversensitive to imagined insults, innuendo or sarcasm. Give people the benefit of the doubt; talk over the situation with someone you trust. They may have another spin on what was said.

4. Think before you commit yourself to other people's expectations We can often perform tasks merely to feel accepted by other people. Practice saying "no" to requests that are unreasonable or more than you can handle at the time - rather than suffer subsequent regrets and stress. Consider whether you should learn to rely less on the approval of others, again, talk this over with someone you trust.

5. Move on: Don't dwell on past mistakes Feelings of guilt, remorse and regret cannot change the past and they make the present difficult by sapping your energy. Make a conscious effort to do something to change the mood (eg mindfulness technique or something active you enjoy) when you feel yourself drifting into regrets about past actions. Learn from it and have strategies in place for next time. Learn to forgive yourself for past mistakes.

6. Learn to defuse anger and frustrations rather than bottle them up Express and discuss your feelings to the person responsible for your agitation. If it is impossible to talk it out, plan for some physical activity at the end of the working day to relieve tensions. Let go of grudges -they do not affect the potential victim because he does not necessarily know about them. However, the grudge-bearer pays a price in energy and anxiety just thinking about revenge.

7. Set aside time each day for recreation and exercise Gentle repetitive exercise such as walking, swimming, cycling are good to relieve stress. Meditation, yoga, Pilates and dance are also excellent. The trick is to find what suits you best. Hobbies that focus attention are also good stress relievers. Take up a new activity unrelated to your current occupation, one that gives you a sense of achievement and satisfaction. Establish new friends in your newly found interest. There are handouts with a range of techniques for relaxation and mindfulness on the Black Dog Institute website that you can use.

8. Take your time: don't let people rush you Frenzied activities lead to errors, regrets, stress. Request time to orient yourself to the situation. At work, if rushed, ask people to wait until you finish working or thinking something out. Plan ahead to arrive at appointments early, composed and having made allowances for unexpected hold-ups. Practice approaching situations ‘mindfully'.

9. Take your time on the road: Don't be an aggressive car driver Develop an "I will not be ruffled" attitude. Drive defensively and give way to bullies. Near misses cause stress and strain, so does the fear of being caught for speeding. If possible avoid peak hour traffic. If caught in it, relax by concentrating on deep (stomach) breathing or ‘mindful driving' (using mindfulness technique, also available on website). Advanced driving lessons can be useful.

10. Help children and young people to cope with stress Children need the experience of being confronted with problems to try out, and improve their ability to cope. By being overprotective or by intervening too soon, parents may prevent young people from developing valuable tolerance levels for problems, or from acquiring problem-solving skills.

11. Think positively - you get what you expect Smile whenever possible -it's an inexpensive way of improving your looks and how you feel. Try and find something positive to say about a situation, particularly if you are going to find fault. You can visualise situations you have handled well and hold those memories in your mind when going into stressful situations.

12. Cut down on drinking, smoking, sedatives and stimulants They only offer temporary relief and don't solve the problem. They can create more problems in terms of physical and mental health. Consider the effects you are looking for (sedation or stimulation) and how else you can achieve them

It's your life and job on the line

Your ability to manage stress is not just an issue for you and your family. It is critical to effective leadership. Your impact on staff will lead to good people staying or going and whether they perform at their optimal levels.

I strongly believe that great leadership starts with crystal clear awareness about ourselves, our emotions, our responses and our ability to manage ourselves for optimal health and performance.

Isn't it fantastic that mastering stress and mental well-being is not only essential for yourself but will have a hugely positive effect on the people around you and their performance? And that can only be a good thing for your career.

P.S. I'd love to know if you found this post useful and any other topics you'd like to read about.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Are you damaging your career prospects?

Do you worry about living up to expectations?

You may be a successful manager or competent team member with lots of kudos. Your future career is looking good.

But do you still experience moments of doubt? Do you ask yourself: ‘Am I good enough for this role?' 'Will I stuff this up because I'm not ready for it?'

Or even this: "I shouldn't have taken this on - I'm in way over my head!"

And are you ever reluctant to ask for help because you think you're expected to have the answers and that others will think less of you if you don't?

Do you get annoyed because people assume you're too young for the responsibility, or perhaps too old?

Do you wonder where the fearlessness you had in earlier times has gone to?

Are you limiting your career prospects?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, you may be on track to sabotage your potential!

Linda Hill and Kent Lineback, their article Jan/Feb 2011 Harvard Business Review say this:

Such moments of doubt and even fear may and often do come despite years of management experience. Any number of events can trigger them.

They go on:

Most bosses reach a certain level of proficiency and stop there ...too many derail and fail to live up to their potential. Why? Because they stop working on themselves.

It's The Almond Effect® at work

When we are new to our roles we are constantly on the lookout for derailers, things that can go wrong. But over time, as we become more settled and comfortable in the role, we worry far less. In some cases, complacency sets in.

But then something triggers off the doubts, the niggles, the concerns, the worries about self-competence and capability.

It can come out of the blue or simply be the result of too much to do, too little time or too many other stressors in your life.

And these derailers come from past experiences and events where things haven't gone as planned either for you or you have seen it happen to others.

Over our lives, a huge number of these warning signs get stored in our brain which if we haven't mastered the STAR technique, can show up at any time with miserable results.

Can you eliminate the triggers?

Because those triggers are always there, you have two choices: eliminate them or learn techniques to manage them before they control you.

So can you eliminate them?
There is a lot of research into this, particularly in the context of post-traumatic stress syndrome. What a relief it would be for sufferers if specific traumatic memories could be eradicated.

There is no commercially available means to do this at present. And if there was, the ethical questions would be enormous? For example, could someone who goes through a divorce have the memory of their previous spouse erased?

You may have seen the romantic drama film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) where this was attempted!

The challenge is that if you delete a memory, you delete a part of someone's life. And learning from our past experiences is the way that humans learn and grow.

Neuroscience not Hollywood

Neuroscientists are making progress towards techniques to selectively master that part of our brain, our amygdala, whose main job is to ensure our survival. It does this by recording all the times when we have been under threat and letting us know or warning us when the same or similar situation is happening again.

Drs. Roger Clem and Richard Huganir study on this has expounded on earlier work (e.g. by Joseph Le Doux) that there is a window of opportunity when memories can be ‘de-potentiated'.

Clem and Huganir discovered in mice that readily removable receptors (the main chemical sensors that detect messages sent from neuron to neuron in the amygdala) are only present for a few days after inducing fear, and peak at around one day.

So if the same thing happens in humans, this may well provide a window of opportunity for removal of the fear inducing receptors. And hey presto, bad memory gone.

However this is fraught with what ifs, hurdles and obstacles before it can become a reality. Does the same thing happen in humans? How long is the window of opportunity? How finely can we pinpoint the memory? What are the side effects of any drug or physical intervention to name just a few.

And then there are ethical dilemmas, which maybe we'll talk about another time.

You need your amygdala

You may have read about the case of SM who experienced such damage to her amygdala that was associated not only with a decrease in the experience of fear, but the absence of fear altogether.

There is a Catch 22 of course. As the authors (Feinstein et al) of the study note:

"The unique case of patient SM provides a rare glimpse into the adverse consequences of living life without the amygdala. For SM, the consequences have been severe. Her behavior, time and time again, leads her back to the very situations she should be avoiding, highlighting the indispensable role that the amygdala plays in promoting survival by compelling the organism away from danger. Indeed, it appears that without the amygdala, the evolutionary value of fear is lost."

The only remedy now

So until such time as the memory specific neuro-pharmaceuticals are as available as Xanax or Ativan, the best way to control your career derailers is to learn techniques such as mindfulness and my STAR technique - Stop Think Act Rewire.

They are going to be far more use to you for some time to come and enable you to be the great manager and team member you can be.

Monday, February 04, 2013

A secret you can't share

Don’t share this with anybody

Has your boss ever said that to you? Have you ever said it to your team?

The secret might be about a restructure, change in product line, new technology, the company’s financial results, a mistake, a failure, a possible merger, something about themselves, another employee or even about your role yet you are sworn to silence.

And what about at home? Have you ever withheld something from your partner or kids? An action that’s left you feeling uncomfortable at best and dishonest at worst?

Apart from the discomfort you almost certainly experience, I am sure you’ve witnessed the effect of secrecy on people around you especially if they suspect something and are already operating in an information vacuum.

People generally hate being kept in the dark. You are right if you suspect that our amygdalae are implicated in reactions to silence in ‘suspicious’ circumstances.

You are so predictable!

Let’s explore this. Most of what we do everyday we don’t need to think about - we run on ‘automatic.’ We consciously don’t need to think about what to do next – we just ‘know’.  Our brain guides us to take action based on pre-existing patterns of behaviour (habits) and predictability of outcomes.

So from the moment you get out of bed to the time you go back to bed, you probably follow a comparable routine each day. We don’t like to think we are predictable but we are. We have to be otherwise our working memory would be exhausted and we would be wacked from the sheer effort of using our brains so much.

Routines are the basis of how we live

For me, my early morning outline is to get out of bed, go to the bathroom, then to the kitchen, turn on the electric jug, get my vitamins out, turn on my computer, open the sliding doors to the deck, open the front door and go down the steps to collect the newspaper, get my breakfast and so on. I don’t actively think about it - it just happens like that most mornings.

My sub-conscious brain is guiding my actions and making decisions (like, is there enough water in the jug, stop pouring milk into the bowl) based on neural patterns laid down in its hardwiring that predicts outcomes.

Of course, if the paper hasn’t been delivered or I’ve run out of vitamins then the routine is interrupted. Then I have to stop and think about what to do – well actually first my amygdala automatically does some checking and assesses the risk to my survival with this break in pattern.

Usually it’s no big deal because my amygdala knows based on history that the lack of vitamins or a newspaper is not life threatening!

Pattern interrupter

However if my computer tells me when I turn it on that its hard drive has failed then that’s another reaction entirely - my ‘almonds’ kick in!

I immediately have to manage my survival response (manifesting as words that it’s preferable not to use!) and stop panicking long enough to get my thinking brain (pre-frontal cortex PFC) to work out where I put the number and service code for Dell, what I backed up, what I lost and what my priorities are.

My predictable morning didn’t go as planned so The Almond Effect® kicked in – and I haven’t even been up longer than 10 minutes!

Is it the same at work?

What do you do when you get to work, do you follow the same routine?  For example, it could be that you turn on the computer, get coffee, say hi to people at the workstation across from you, open your email, look at your diary etc.

No drama, all normal just as your brain predicted, unless an unexpected alert starts flashing on your screen to call your manager urgently.  Your brain’s hard-wired pattern-based operation is stopped in its tracks as it rapidly tries to assess the ‘threat’ and predict what the urgency is all about.

Your amygdala is immediately on red alert asking whether the interruption is a threat to your survival. If your personal history indicates that an alert saying to call the boss immediately is likely to cause a problem, then The Almond Effect® kicks in.

That's when you'll be glad you've been to one of my workshops, because you’ll immediately put STAR into operation and get your PFC engaged to think before you act!

Not knowing is worst for the brain than knowing

Uncertainty really throws our brains into a muddle because in the absence of any pattern to the contrary, our brain defaults to predict the worst outcome The Almond Effect®) – even in non-life threatening situations at home or at work.

This is why you should never be surprised that withholding information, keeping secrets etc will lead to gossip (flocking) pessimism and worst case scenario interpretations.

Lack of certainty creates anxiety, frustration, gossip and innuendo – all expressions of The Almond Effect®.

And anxious people don’t concentrate or perform well – their brains are distracted - focussing on the cause of the anxiety. They are searching for any kind of predictable outcome so that the brain can operate with certainty again.

The situation is exacerbated if we are already operating in an information vacuum because our brains will predict the worst case scenario so we can prepare ourselves to survive.

Applied at home, it means for example that if your teenager isn’t at the place they said they were going to, your 'almonds' go off. If you unexpectedly find a hotel receipt in your spouse’s pocket, if your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere etc – you get the picture!


Whether you are implementing changes at work or trying to hide something from someone at home, be aware that if the other party’s amygdala can’t see a ‘safe’ pattern, it will get suspicious. And the natural default reaction will be to focus on the worst case interpretation of the events with all the ramifications that will flow.

That’s why most people say, just tell us what’s going on – and then we can work out how to deal with it.

If you think you are doing people a favour by only giving information on a ‘need to know’ basis, think again – brain biology wants just the opposite.