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You need more stress

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Thursday, March 03, 2011

By Tom Cox

The latest brain science makes it clear: You need more stress.  The good kind, not the bad kind.

Sadly, most people seem to make one of two mistakes.  Either they embrace the worst sort of toxic stress — dramatically reducing their work effectiveness and that of their people … or they mistakenly treat all stress as bad — denying themselves the growth and rewards of good stress.

CEOs fail here all the time.

Mr. Stephenson is the CEO of a multi-state firm in the construction industry.  He doesn’t believe in rating each project by its profitability.  His story is that keeping score like that could be a source of comparisons, jealousies, or ill feeling.  Or too detailed reporting might be used by some of the mathematically gifted staff to figure out everyone’s salary, which could lead to bad feelings.

Unfortunately, the downside of this behavior — not rating projects by their profitability — is worse: last year the firm made very weak profits, and by early this year they had to lay off staff just as the rest of the industry is beginning to recover and build momentum.  The firm’s sales force are compensated for revenue, not profitability, so they continue to bring in unprofitable projects to this day — and are praised for doing so.

Stephenson thought morale might be harmed by internal competition around being more profitable.  His people are living through the even worse morale of losing money and now layoffs.  (And with the recovery starting and competitors hiring, his best people will be the first to leave.)

What this CEO got wrong is to mistakenly think all stress is bad.  It’s not.  Keeping score in an honest game is a source of good stress — it brings out our competitive drives.  When you keep score in a positive environment, where a lower score is not a reason to tear somebody down, instead it’s a spur to encourage them to greatness, the very fact of score-keeping drives up positive behaviors, and adds spice to our victories.

The CEOs and managers who are reluctant to demand top performance (the “Relaters” as described in Pete Friedes’ book “The 2R Manager: When to Relate, When to Require, and How to Do Both Effectively“) usually do so because they value relationships very highly, and fear harming those relationships.  What Relaters don’t realize, Friedes points out, is that you’ll have a better relationship with your staff members if you push them to grow and help them achieve.  We most love those bosses who both kept us safe and helped us grow — and Relaters are too focused on safety to allow growth.

Paradoxically, these same Relaters seem frequently to experience absurdly high levels of personal stress, as they try to make up for the non-performance of their staff.  For Stephenson, it is a lot more stressful running a loss-making business with layoffs, than running a profitable and growing business that keeps score.  By attempting to reduce all stress, such people increase the worst kind of stress.

Good stress is what you feel when you grapple with a problem.  Even being stuck on a problem for a little while is okay, provided you handle it with brainstorming or playfully devising alternatives.

You can turn bad stress into good stress by maximizing the feeling of choice (i.e. by asking, or by noticing that you have a choice — using words like “can” and “could” and avoiding words like “need,” “should” and “have to”), by trading off one task for another (rather than just piling the new one on top), and by including at least a little preparation time.

Our example CEO, Stephenson, would be well served to try a new tack: start scoring every project on its profitability, with just a rough score — perhaps “A” for 20+% profit down to “D” for 0-5% profit, and “F” for money-losers.  Combine the new scoring system with an environment where low scores are just invitations to learn.  Let the project managers create the details of the scoring system themselves — maximizing their feelings of choice, while giving them trade-offs and preparation time — so they feel positive stress even as they are creating the new system.

What if you’re stuck with a big load of your own toxic stress? Dr. Edward Hallowell, in his book “Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People,” suggests several techniques to turn bad stress around, including

* a 3-minute burst of exercise, like running up and down stairs
* asking a colleague for help brainstorming a new solution
* reading a joke book for 5 minutes (laughter is an anti-toxin)
* looking at pictures of people, places and animals that you love

These will “reset” your brain and allow you to tackle the problem anew.

Contributing blogger Thomas B. Cox runs Cox Business Consulting, Inc. and is creator of the blog and web radio show Tom on Leadership, aimed at CEOs and business owners. He has worked with IBM, Oracle, Tektronix, ODOT, Intel and others.

 
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