“O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.” Robert Burns
face in the mirror

Self-awareness Vs. sleep walking

It is very easy to live life on ‘auto pilot’ without really stopping to think about what is driving our behaviour and motivating our actions. This is especially true when the pace of life is hectic and there are many demands on our time and attention. This can have unfortunate consequences for people in all walks of life. Margaret Thatcher (the UK Prime Minister) had a very effective style, for a while, but when it all started to go wrong she thought that she needed to be more like herself, when in fact the opposite was required. This capacity for ‘self-awareness’ is emphasised in “True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership”, by Harvard Professor Bill George, which highlights the importance of ‘knowing your true self’, if you are going to be a good leader.

Self-awareness from the outside in

One popular way of gaining insights into our automatic, or default, patterns of behaviours is to take psychometric inventory that help us to analyse our innermost motivations. There are literally thousands of published psychometric inventories, of widely varying degrees of validity. The most popular inventory, is probably the “Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)” assessment, with over two million tests administered each year. Sadly, it’s a very poorly designed test; you can view a video about its origins here… tinyurl.com/yd48u2mw

My personal preference when using psychometric inventories to develop self-awareness, however, is for the “Strength Deployment Inventory” developed by the US psychologist, clinical therapist, educator and author Elias H. Porter, Ph.D. A very robust instrument, the SDI helps people to recognise that they can choose their behaviours to accommodate their underlying ‘core’ values, while also taking into account the values of others’ (which can be quite different from their own.) www.personalstrengthsuk/

The SDI assess personality against four core values. People are a mix of all four ‘orientations’ and these fundamental motivations can drive a very wide range of individual behaviours. In a highly simplified form the four values are: Altruism (a desire to help others), Directing (having a strong focus on goals), Analytical (a preference for making careful assessments) and Cohering (a focus on team work and group dynamics).

When developing self-awareness using psychometrics in leadership teams, it is common for consultants to select the “Hogan Leadership Series” developed by Dr Robert & Dr Joyce Hogan, which has been evolving since the 1970’s. The Hogan Series of inventories contains three sets of analysis: the “bright side”, positive qualities necessary for success (e.g. tact, perceptiveness, initiative); the “dark side”, covering potential barriers or de-railers to success (e.g. arrogance, moodiness, stubbornness); and the “inside”, the internal drivers that motivate behaviour (e.g. wanting to help others, seeking out social interaction etc.) It has been taken by several millions of people in over 12 countries. The British Psychological Society awarded it the highest accolade for test development. The Hogan web site is: www.hoganassessments.com (and we offer the Hogan assessment and feedback as part of our coaching services… )


Another popular approach to get a sense of how others see us is 360-degree feedback, where the opinion of colleagues and peers is used to highlight their perception of our strengths and weaknesses. While this can be a valuable exercise, completing it successfully is fraught with difficulties e.g. all employees are treated equally, so the views of top performing employees have the same weight as those of low performers, who may give a low score because they don’t like their manager pushing them to improve. Or employees may mark a manager they like personally higher than they deserve (or vice versa); the same may be true if they fear that the feedback isn’t anonymous. Also, many surveys don’t ask for suggested ‘solutions’ to perceived behavioural ‘problems’, so how specifically the person at the centre of the 360 should change their ways might not be obvious etc.

Self-awareness from the inside out

Another possibility is analysing our past in order to uncover deep motivation patterns that affect us in the present. This ‘personal history’ analysis simply involves looking at some key facts from the past, and thinking about their current impact on our daily life by asking four key questions…

  1. What are three significant facts about your upbringing?
  2. What are three ways that your personal history positively affects you today?
  3. What are three ways that your personal history negatively affects you today?
  4. What can you do to escape from the negative aspects of your personal history?

The key to this deceptively simple exercise, which can be surprisingly powerful and sometimes ‘unsettling’, is to write down the answers to the four questions. The act of writing down the answers helps with processing emotions and makes it easier to consider the issues being raised in an objective manner.

Avoiding Junk Logic

A common cause of personal problems associated with a lack of self-awareness, is negative, irrational thinking patterns (also called ‘junk logic’.) According to Albert Ellis (founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy) there are four types of irrational beliefs that inhibit the ability to act in a constructive way, which he explores in his book “How to Make Yourself Happy and Remarkably Less Disturbed.”

The four types of junk logic are…

  1. Demands – believing that things have to be a particular way. This causes problems because it is not usually possible to control other people or the way they are. For example, thinking that “everyone must like me at all times”” is a recipe for distress as it is simply not possible to be liked by all of the people all of the time. A more rational thought would be; “I want people to like me and I will treat people well, but if occasionally someone doesn’t like me, that is their choice and I feel OK about it.”
  2. Avoiding responsibility – placing the responsibility for things going wrong onto another person. An example of this would be the person who says, “you make me angry”, or “you will make me angry if you talk to me about (x)”, whereas, of course, the person has the responsibility to choose their actions, and we have the responsibility to choose our response.
  3. Over Generalisations – thinking that the occurrence of one event will mean that things will always be a particular way. So in this case one swallow does make a summer. Unwarranted generalisations lead to feelings of frustration, worry and helplessness.
  4. Catastrophisation – thinking that some event is awful or disastrous, leading to anxiety and despair e.g. “I will die of embarrassment if I have to give a presentation”.

Hurry up and be perfect

Eric Berne, the Canadian psychiatrist and developer of the Transactional Analysis School of Psychology, proposed that in childhood there are certain messages or ‘drivers’ that are often transmitted to children via their environment and how they are treated. These ‘drivers’ then influence how people behave as adults. Each ‘driver’ can have certain strengths, but also potential weaknesses associated with them. Due to this, when a ‘driver’ is unacknowledged, in later life it can cause relationship problems. So for example, if someone became aware that they always felt the need for urgency, or to ‘Hurry Up’, one corrective action would be to consciously make the effort to ‘take their time’ over some task or activity. The five key ‘drivers’ are…

  1. Be perfect! Positive Aspect: valuing accuracy, tidiness and maintaining high standards. Negative Aspect: feeling dissatisfied because you can never be quiet good enough, finding it hard to delegate or trust others to do things correctly.
  2. Be Strong! Positive Aspect: making things happen, taking control of situations, not being overly emotional, or dependent on others. Negative Aspect: being seen as aloof, distant and getting overwhelmed by refusing to ask for help when it’s needed.
  3. Try Hard! Positive Aspect: working hard, a willingness to take on new things. Negative Aspect: taking on more than you can cope with, getting sidetracked and so frustrating other people when you don’t get things done on time.
  4. Please others! Positive Aspect: being friendly, supportive and easy to get along with, a good team player. Negative Aspect: finding it hard to say no, even to unfair requests and downplaying your own needs
  5. Hurry Up! Positive Aspect: working fast, being efficient and getting things done quickly. Negative Aspect: leaving things until the last minute, appearing impatient, being unrealistic about timelines and so having to continually ‘rush’ to get things done.

Self-awareness and energy management

Schwattz and McCarthy ague in their October 2007 HBR article, “Manage Your Energy not Your Time” (https://hbr.org/2007/10/manage-your-energy-not-your-time/ar/1) that many ‘problems’ and stress reactions can be attributed to people being unaware of how they manage their energy. Gaining an insight into how energy is being managed (or mismanaged) is, for them, the key to being effective.

They identify four classes of energy that need to be consciously managed:

  1. Physical energy
  2. Emotional energy
  3. Mental energy
  4. Spiritual energy

They recommend that people develop specific daily ‘rituals’ that create a sense of ‘renewal’ throughout the day, for each of the four categories. For example, Physical Energy could be developed by making a habit of going to bed early, exercising each morning (as soon as you get up), going for a short walk each lunchtime etc. Emotional Energy can be improved by deliberately expressing appreciation of others e.g. saying thank you, sending a congratulatory email etc. They argue that praising or acknowledging other people’s efforts causes productivity to increase, stress to be reduced and enthusiasm to be generated.

Looking through Johari’s Window

“The Johari Window” model was devised by American psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955, while researching group dynamics at the University of California Los Angeles. The name comes from a combination of their first names (Joseph and Harry.) The model asks that people assess their thoughts and feelings in relation to four ‘regions’ or areas:

  1. The Open Area: what is known by the person about him/herself and is also known by others
  2. The Blind Spot: what is unknown by the person about him/herself, but which others know
  3. The Hidden Area: what the person knows about him/herself that others do not know
  4. The Unknown Area: what is unknown by the person about him/herself and is also unknown by others

Of course in team work situations one aim of the window is to increase productivity by working to get people to know each other better, and so increase the size of the “Open Area”.

Blind Spots (e.g. not realizing that other people see you as (say) indecisive) can be addressed by seeking feedback from others.

The Hidden Area consists of dreams, desires, fears, preferences, secrets etc. that we keep to ourselves. While some of this hidden information is ‘sensitive’ and is best kept private, a lot of it isn’t especially personal and we can achieve better relationships with others by moving it into the “Open Area”, through well-judged ‘disclosure’ i.e. telling people what’s on your mind.

The Unknown Area is a thing that neither the person or those that know them are aware of e.g. a hidden talent – as in an ability or skill that no-one knows they have because the situation where it might be relevant has never arisen, or an experience they might enjoy but haven’t tried yet e.g. a type of food, or maybe a pastime etc. On the ‘dark side’ this area could also include memories of traumatic events that have been repressed. Exploring this area involves embarking on self-discovery through reflection, or experimenting with new experiences.

So what’s next???

Developing self-awareness means accepting those parts of you and your behaviour that usually remain hidden. It also involves being honest about personal limitations and areas of weakness. Self-awareness, however, also means highlighting those situations where you are most effective, assists with decision-making, boosts motivation and is the key to personal growth and leadership development. So consider:

Trying an online version of the Cattell 16PF test to get some feedback on your preferred approach to situations.

Experimenting with an online version of the Johari Window, 360 feedback exercise. A classic and elegant awareness tool first developed in 1955.

Reading, “The Self Esteem Workbook” by Glenn R. Schiraldi if you want to explore this area in detail and have access to a number of ‘self development’ tools.

If you think that you or your work team could benefit from our help then take a look at our half-day, in-house Self-Awareness & Teamwork workshop using the SDI …

Or maybe our ‘one to one’ executive coaching services, for one of our experts to take you through the Hogan Leadership Questionnaire

Consider Sun Tzu’s famous quote from the Art of War

“If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles.”

“We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Benjamin Franklin
collaborative working

Collaborating, between both external partners and also internal teams, is a key competency for successful organisations. But it goes wrong at least as often as it goes right, sometimes with horrible consequences.

Take, for example, the case of the 2007 joint venture between Swiss watch manufacture Swatch and the high-end jewellery retailer Tiffany. The aim of the collaboration was for Swatch to manufacture Tiffany branded watches that Tiffany would sell through its distribution outlets. All went well until 2011 when Tiffany decided that the watches were no longer a priority for their business and (according to Swatch) started dragging its feet on making decisions; it also stopped displaying the watches at its flagship 5th Avenue store in New York. The relationship soured and in 2013 Swatch was awarded, through an arbitration action, $449 million in compensation.

So, one thing this story tells us about good collaboration is the need to consider the issue of Residual Control i.e. if something unexpected happens, or circumstances alter, who can initiate a change? E.g. is there a specific ‘break clause’ in the collaboration agreement, or an option for mediation? But, of course, there’s much more to building an effective collaboration than having an ‘escape hatch’ built into the agreement.

Defining collaboration…

Let’s start with a formal definition… Collaborative Working is defined as:
‘People working jointly on an activity or project to achieve a common goal. Especially where this involves co-operation between a number of teams, departments and/or different organisations to achieve an agreed objective.’
It comes from the Latin, ‘collaborare’, meaning ‘to work with.’

Do the stars align?

Clearly a key part of this definition is the need for a ‘common goal’. So the starting point for collaboration to work is that there must be a clear and explicitly stated common interest and an agreed ‘vision’ for what is to be achieved. There must also be good quality goals and concrete measures of success. This clarity of purpose plus clear success criteria is the basis for all the other aspects that need to be in place for collaboration to work.

Naturally that common purpose needs to be genuine and sincerely felt by all involved if good results are to be achieved. Sometimes collaboration occurs for public relations reasons, with one or more of the parties just going through the motions, regarding the collaboration as their ‘least worst option’. In these cases, one of the ‘players’ secretly hope it will fail, stall, or be abandoned. All the while they seem to be collaborating they are actually looking for reasons to pull out while, on the surface of things, acting in a reasonable manner. The main message here is that it’s counterproductive to pressure people into a collaboration – as they usually have more ways of sabotaging things than you have ways of getting them to behave! Thus, a key stage in the collaborative process is to check that all the parties are fully invested in a successful outcome.

On a related point, as we’ve seen above, it’s also vital to make sure there is a mechanism to handle situations were those common interests, once genuinely in sync, for some reason start to diverge. (The issue of ‘residual control’.) So, I don’t suppose many people who are about to get married have the idea in their heads that things will end in divorce but anyone who’s rich and/or famous makes sure they’ve got the prenuptial agreement in place before they tie the knot.

You say potato, I say potata – let’s call the whole thing off

Common interests provide the rationale for the collaboration but alignment of organisational culture is the key driver of success. As the old saying goes, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. So part of having a good alignment is that there are no cultural barriers that might block effective working; or if they are there then they are dealt with.

For example, take the case of the World Wide Fund for nature working with Plus Group (an organisation that certifies forestry management procedures as environmentally sound for products sold by its commercial members e.g. Boots, Sainsbury’s, Body Shop etc.) Unsurprisingly the WWF’s focus was primarily on protecting the environment, while Plus Group goals related to satisfying the business interests of its members e.g. getting cost reductions. Plus Group consequently felt that the WFF people were often ‘unable to appreciate commercial pressures’. The way these tensions were resolved was through ‘cultural mediators’. Essentially the WWF Project Managers built personal networks and ‘alliances’ that enabled them to act as bridges between the environmentalist culture and that of the commercial companies that made up the Plus Group membership. They worked to get a shared vocabulary and frame of reference established such that mutual respect could be established and trust built. So, when contemplating a collaboration, it’s worth thinking about who is going to provide that ‘cultural mediation’.

The importance of a ‘collaboration strategy’

The UK’s National Audit Office has commissioned research into Collaborative Working relationships and how they can drive successful programmes. The research looked at nine collaborative projects involving major companies such as BP, AMEC, and Babcock. All the collaborations were between two separate organisations (not internal collaborations) and identified (unsurprisingly) the need for a clear Vision. They also noted the importance of:

  • Leaders being role models for, and actively championing, working in a collaborative manner e.g. sharing information openly, having regular and timely discussion on all matters that affect the collaboration with no, no-go areas or sacred cows.
  • The usefulness of a “no surprises” and a “no-blame” culture to build the levels of trust that effective collaboration needs if it is to succeed.
  • Making sure that the reward and recognition systems used by both parties were compatible with (i) one another and (ii) a collaborative approach. So it’s clearly destructive if the bonus schemes offered by the various parties to the collaboration pull people in different directions e.g. rewards for getting things done in the shortest possible time Vs. (say) the highest possible standard. For example, consider the case of a major UK bank where the Telephone Banking department wouldn’t suggest that customer’s pop into their local branch to sort out some paperwork, even when this was clearly the simplest and best option for the client, because that customer wouldn’t then count as part of their sales figures. So in a world where bonuses mattered a lot to the monthly take home pay and where those bonuses were dependant on hitting sales targets, collaboration was effectively discouraged.

Actively managing the inevitable conflict

Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes in a Harvard Business Review Article on Collaboration propose that it has never been more important to get people to work together across internal boundaries. They also think that most Executives underestimate the inevitability of conflict in doing this.

To underline this point about likelihood of conflict occurring they list three ‘myths of collaboration’:

  1. Teaming workshops can help build bridges between internal teams: Weiss and Hughes say, ”no”, they don’t work very well as the inter-team conflicts typically go beyond the dynamics of day to day teamwork.
  2. Incentives encourage good behaviour: here they make a more nuanced point, (i) for sure poor incentives will kill the collaboration (ii) and good incentives will work up to a point but won’t be sufficient to sustain the collaboration long term.
  3. There is an optimal way of structuring the company to get good collaboration: again they say “no”, and state that, “no organisation chart that will avoid conflicts and lead to greater collaboration.”

They argue that the disagreements sparked by differences in perspective, competencies, culture, access to information, and strategic focus within a company are (a) Unavoidable (b) Actually generate much of the value that can come from collaboration.

So instead of trying simply to reduce disagreements, senior executives need to embrace conflict and institutionalise mechanisms for managing it. They divide these mechanisms into two main areas:

  • Strategies for managing disagreements at the point of conflict.
    For example, they suggest that a formal ‘conflict resolution’ process is put in place to provide an agreed mechanism for nipping disagreements in the bud. And they suggest that coaching is provided to the protagonists, to help them find common ground.
  • Strategies for managing conflict upon escalation up the management chain. This involves requiring that the people experiencing the conflict engage in a joint escalation process. So no one person can trigger an escalation, they have to involve their colleagues in the process.

And, of course, both processes need to be in place and fully utilised if a collaborative effort is to be a success.

So what’s next?

Think about past collaborations you have been involved in. For the ones that went well think about why they went well. For the ones that went badly think about why they went badly. As you reflect on the two experiences, what does that suggest to you about how you can improve your collaborative efforts going forward?


Want Collaboration?: Accept – and Actively Manage – Conflict
by Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes, Harvard Business Review Article


Have a look at Tim Cook talking about collaboration at Apple (3 minutes long):


If you think that you, or your work team, could benefit from our help then you might like to review our in-house half-day master class on Conflict Management


Or if you want to help develop a leadership team take a look at our Executive Coaching Services

And to end with a quote from the well known entrepreneur…

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself”
Henry Ford

An article by Marc Beaujean, Jonathan Davidson, and Stacey Madge or McKinsey, highlights just how important customer facing staff are in making an emotional connection between a client and a supplier’s ‘brand’ and how that connection, that spark, can drive profitability.

The article emphasises just how important it is for customer facing staff, at all levels, to be trained to have high levels of Emotional Intelligence in order to make it easy for people to connect with clients;  especially when the client has a major problem. In the view of the authors, high emotions (caused by a big problem) plus a great response are what really drive customer loyalty. in one study a bank in North America found that a 50% gap between the best and worst branches, as measured by ‘share of wallet’ and customer retention stats, was accounted for by the ability to solve customer problems effectively. Interestingly the research showed that this ‘solving problems effectively’ sometimes meant prioritising  the customer’s need over the banks sales targets. However that customer focus translated, over time, into a larger share of the customer’s banking business.

You can take a look at the full article HERE

And if this topic interests you, you might like to consider how our one-day Essential Customer Care programme could help you and your people build customer loyalty through improved soft skills and better emotional intelligence…



All the best,


“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Welcome to the working week

Everyone has ‘stuff’ they need to get done and ‘problems’ that they need to solve. There are small things and minor problems, (like doing the ironing, or getting the kids off to school); bigger things (like completing a major work project, or taking care of an elderly relative.) Then there are things that are fun; things that are not so much fun; things we initiate and things that are thrust upon us by others or by circumstances. At one level these demands on us to get things done can be motivational. For example, athletes tend to break records in front of a large crowd and great satisfaction can be gained from striving to complete a worthwhile task. However, if the pressure to make things happen increases beyond a certain point, and we’ve more on our plate that we feel we can handle, then a stress reaction can occur. In this situation a person can start to feel anxious (rather then energised), sometimes to the point of feeling completely overwhelmed.

Surviving on the savannah

So how does positive pressure to get things done, or handle life’s problems and challenges turn into negative stress? The answer is found in evolutionary biology and the fight/flight survival mechanism. Approached by a lion in the African savannah our ancestors would not survive long if they sat down and debated what action to take, so the brain triggers an instantaneous reaction to either (a) attack the lion or (b) run away.

This ‘fight/flight’ process involves hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol being released to facilitate immediate physical action. The hormones generate a series of physical changes aimed at helping to react to a threat e.g. a heightened awareness, a reduction in sensitivity to pain, a quickening heart rate, etc.

The response is triggered both by real threats (e.g. an actual lion) and the possibility of a threat (e.g. a noise in the bushes that might, or might not, be a lion). The way the system was intended to work is that the response ‘switches on’ and ‘switches off’ very quickly in answer to the physical events that unfold. So we run away from the lion, and once safe again we calm down, or, the noise in the bushes turns out to just be the wind blowing through the branches, and we relax.

Failing to flip the ‘off switch’

Problems arise when the physical threat is replaced by the ‘psychological threat’ such as: worry about tight deadlines; criticism from your boss; an argument with your partner; money troubles; or the long term, low level tension created by the daily grind of commuting etc. If the fight/flight mechanism is triggered for these ‘psychological threats’ the adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol causes the body to go into overdrive, but the hormones are not naturally dissipated by action, so the blood pressure stays raised or the mind remains agitated. When this happens fighting or running often translates into unhelpful effects like irritable bowel, dry mouth, stomach ache, eczema, insomnia, angry outburst etc.

The joy of euphoric stress

The type, number and intensity of ‘events’ that it takes to create a ‘stressful’ situation where the fight/flight response goes into over-drive varies enormously from individual to individual e.g. some people would be horrified at the thought of giving a presentation to three hundred people at a conference, while others would be excited by the prospect.

The Canadian psychologist, Hans Seyle, famously identified four ‘zones’ of arousal or stress:

  • Calm – a relaxed, peaceful state of mind
  • Euphoric stress (Eustress) – the natural high that comes from striving to meet a challenge
  • Distress – the sense of ‘worry’, ‘tension’ and (maybe) anxiety that comes from feeling out of control
  • Extreme distress – a sense of panic, helplessness and fear that comes from seeing no way out of a difficulty or problem situation, this can result in a range of symptoms such as fatigue, palpitations, irritability, headaches etc.

The issue for Seyle was to (i) know yourself and what you personally can – and can’t – take in your stride, and (ii) have strategies for recovering quickly from ‘distress’ and ‘extreme distress’ when you get too far outside your comfort zone.

Four strategies for managing stress

Research indicates that there are four, interconnected, strategies for learning to defuse the fight/flight response and so manage stress effectively:

  1. Manage your state of mind; it may be easier said than done, but the idea is to let your problems ‘bounce off you’, like water off a duck’s back (i.e. eliminate ‘worry’ or ‘annoyance’ or ‘panic’ in the face of work overload, or disappointments, or ‘bad’ situations.) Be proactive; be optimistic.
  2. Manage your personal energy levels; stay physically strong and well rested, be active and ‘burn off’ stress inducing hormones through exercise (get a good night’s sleep, exercise, consciously take ‘time out’ for fun activities, have a balanced diet, don’t drink or smoke too much etc.)
  3. Manage your relationships; no one can thrive without some help from other people (a problem shared is a problem halved, actively stay ‘connected’ to family and friends.)
  4. Manage your task list; the chances are that it’s impossible to do everything you might like to do, or that your boss might like you to do! (So prioritise your efforts, say ‘no’ (respectfully) to unreasonable requests, and negotiate workloads/responsibilities.)

Let’s look at the first of these strategies (Manage your state of mind) in more detail.

Manage your state of mind: The ABC of stress management

Albert Ellis argued that experiencing psychological stress involves a three-step, ABC process… Adverse Events; Beliefs; Consequences:

Adverse Event: Something bad happens (e.g. you are stuck in a traffic jam, you hear a sudden loud noise, you are late for a meeting, you argue with a colleague.)

Beliefs: You think about the event to assess if it presents a threat (this happens very quickly and usually at a subconscious level.)

Consequences: You experience feelings and sensations that will vary in type and intensity, depending on how you think about the event (i.e. is the fight/flight response (a) triggered and (b) if triggered, how quickly is it switched ‘off’.)

His observation is that we cannot (usually) control events, but we can (at least to some extent) control our thinking, and therefore we can manage our emotions and thereby take charge of the fight/flight response. So for Ellis you can think about a situation using either ‘junk logic’ (negative, pessimistic, disempowering thoughts), or ‘rational thinking’ (logical, positive, optimistic – but realistic thoughts.) Unsurprisingly, he recommends using rational thinking.

Remember, ‘worse things happen at sea’

So imagine an Adverse Event (say) someone comes back home after a long day at work to find they’ve been burgled. Not a nice experience. At this point they could use, what Ellis would call ‘junk logic’, and think; “this is the most awful thing ever, I can never feel safe in my home again, this is just terrible, I’ve lost some precious belongings and that’s a dreadful, heart wrenching loss and I am helpless to do anything about it.” And as result they’d probably feel anxious and distraught.

But are those thoughts, in this example, helpful or even really true? Can the home really not be made safe – ever again? What would adding a stronger door, or more robust locks or a remote camera do for security? It’s horrible to have had your home broken into but that doesn’t mean steps can’t be taken to stop it happening again. And when all is said and done, no one was hurt or injured. Furthermore, while the loss of personal items (especially those with sentimental value) is no laughing matter, is it really the end of the world? No doubt some things can be replaced with insurance money and for the others you still have your memories, and no one can take those away.

Manage your personal energy levels: Exercise and diaphragmatic breathing

Harvard Medical School, (exercising to relax, 2011) notes that exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the “runner’s high” and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many hard workouts. So regular exercise helps to manage stress. They also note that while rapid, shallow breathing is a common response to stress: slow, deep, regular breathing is a sign of relaxation. And it’s possible to control your respirations so they mimic relaxation i.e. deliberately engaging in deep, slow breathing helps to dissipate stress.

Manage your relationships: Hug the monkey

Rick Hanson (the well regarded neuroscientist) notes that in terms of evolutionary biology the brain development occurred in three stages:

  1. Stage one was the development of structures in the brainstem that were highly focused on avoiding danger (i.e. the fight/flight response). This is still the most basic and most sensitive/powerful level of the brain’s functions.
  2. Stage two, was the development of structures in the sub cortex to help seek out pleasure and ‘rewards’.
  3. Stage three was focusing on the need for belonging and love (located in the neo cortex.)

These three aspects of brain function: avoiding harm, approaching rewards and attaching to others need to be integrated and balanced in order to achieve a positive, happy life. Hanson humorously refers to this as the need to: pet the lizard; feed the mouse and hug the monkey.

As for ‘attaching to others’ he notes that in ancient times, membership in a band was critical to survival: exile was a death sentence in the Serengeti. And that today feeling understood, valued, and cherished, directly affects a person’s happiness and effectiveness. So an important part of stress management (or more accurately ‘stress avoidance’) is to seek ‘connections’ to others. Or as Hanson would say, to “hug the monkey, (an admittedly goofy phrase) inside yourself and thus absorb in one form or another that most fundamental human sustenance: love.” So prioritise spending time with people who wish you well and have your best interests at heart. Make sure that your work commitments don’t stop you from seeing friends, spending time with family and catching up with colleagues.

Manage your task list: don’t bite off more than you can chew

It’s a very rare person who can do everything they want to do during the course of a day. Most of us have to negotiate with (i) ourselves, about competing demands on our time and (ii) with the people who will have priorities that differ from ours. This involves saying “no” to being overloaded, but also agreeing how to flex and adapt your schedule in the face of reasonable requests and demands from your family, boss and peers.

Many people don’t fully appreciate that saying, “yes” to one thing effectively means saying “no” to something else. And that ‘something else’ we are saying ‘no’ to may well be a priority work task for us, or may eat away at time we want to dedicate to our home or personal lives. So if we are too accommodating then it may well be that the things we are saying ‘no’ to by default are the very things that we need to do to take better care of ourselves and/or hit our personal work targets.

Of course the irony is that if we agree to do more than we can handle, we probably don’t do it very well, and we may also end up exhausted (or angry) for having to do something that intrudes into our personal time. This is why finding out exactly why people are asking for things, and then negotiating a way forward that makes sense to you and to them is so important to managing stress. So mastering the delicate art of saying no, is a key life skill.

Stress and leadership: my brother’s keeper

If you are a leader, or a people manager, then, in many countries, you will have a legal responsibility to proactively ensure the welfare of people reporting to you, and that includes monitoring their stress levels. In the UK, for example, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, make employers responsible for ensuring the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees. Legally, Board Members must ensure that a Health & Safety policy is in place and monitor factors that might suggest there is a problem with stress-related illness in the business, e.g. high rates of absenteeism.

Managers should be on the lookout for common signs of stress in employees, including (but not limited to)…

  • Taking more time off than usual
  • Not taking normal breaks (e.g. lunch), working long hours
  • Increased irritability, poor concentration, reduced productivity (e.g. making mistakes)
  • Becoming withdrawn, ‘moody’ or over-reacting to what others say
  • Showing physical signs of fatigue e.g. yawning, rubbing eyes, sweating, or sallow complexion

So what’s next???

  • Reflect on which of Seyles “stress zones” you are in and what that might tell you about how you might try to adjust your behaviour to spend more time in zones one and two.
  • Consider just how optimistic you are. Do you need to adjust your thoughts to be more of a “glass half full” type of person? This doesn’t mean pretending that things are Ok when they aren’t, but it does mean looking at what’s good about a situation and taking the initiative to improve things where possible.
  • Try reading, The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook
    by Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning
  • Learn more about Breathing Excercises, a three minute video – Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique

If you think that you or your work team could benefit from our help then take a look at our half-day master class on stress management.

Or maybe our ‘one to one’ executive coaching services.

Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or  +44 1788 475 877 (international) or email us at coaching@boulden.net and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

And to end with a quote from the well known US physician Dr. Chris Feudtner,

“90% of life is about remaining calm.”