No one expects management to be easy. We know it can be an intense, demanding, and stressful job. It's not just that some periods are more stressful than others; for many managers, at least in the US, the cycle is often between very stressful and incredibly stressful. The traditional view of how to deal with this is to tough it out. The manager sees himself as a rugged hero (think actors Hrithik Roshan or Chow Yun-Fat) plodding undaunted through the Antarctic wastes. It's a stirring image, but this isn't what the real Antarctic hero Sir Ernest Shackleton did.
In 1915 Shackleton and his crew was shipwrecked in the Antarctic. With the chance of survival incredibly remote he still took time to have football matches, games and lectures. What he was doing—in the language of Dr. Richard Boyatzis—was investing in renewal. Shackleton was re-building the strength of his crew so that they would survive—and survive they did, all of them.
Dr. Boyatzis is a professor of management and psychology at Case Western University. His most recent book, Resonant Leadership, is about the process of renewal. One thing that is clear is that the intensity of management is not just mental, it is physical. Stress affects your body and your body affects your mind. Chronic stress shuts down thinking; it narrows your thoughts so that you become a poor manager just at the time when thinking clearly is most important. In his race towards the South Pole Robert Scott heroically put his head down and with nose relentless to the grindstone led his team forward—they all died.
If someone you know was a good manager, but is increasingly becoming a jerk (to the point management thinks they may need to let them go) it may simply be a sign that stress has eroded their cognitive ability. Sadly they also often lose the ability to notice just what bad shape they are in.
The medicine for preventing this deterioration in the face of chronic stress is renewal. The three sources of renewal that Boyatzis recommends are hope (thinking positively about the future), compassion (helping others) and mindfulness (being aware of yourself and surroundings) These activities actually invoke physiological processes that counter-act the damaging effects of stress.
Despite the obvious wisdom of this, it can be counterintuitive. When the going gets tough we expect the tough to get going (as Scott did) not to take a break to play football (as Shackleton did). Yet the scientific evidence is compelling. You need to take regular breaks to practice hope, compassion and mindfulness. This is just good management. Those breaks could involve mediating, going for a walk, prayer or taking time out of your busy day to help someone who needs it.
At a corporate level one can envision what a badly run office would be like: people would have a stern look on their face and be anxiously hunched over their work while hurriedly eating lunch at their desk. The intelligent workplace would be relaxed with joking, people stopping to take a slow stroll around the block, and despite urgent deadlines taking a moment to help someone else. This is precisely the opposite of what many managers perceive as being an appropriate climate.
Success does not come from misery. Success comes from intelligence and the medical evidence is that the without renewal, stress makes us less intelligent. Individuals need to build renewal into their own lives and HR managers need to build an organizational climate that encourages renewal. This approach may be counterintuitive, but we must manage based on evidence not on the whims of managers who feel that the way to respond to stress is a heads down death march across the ice.
David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research providing writing, research and commentary on human capital management. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in the US, Japan, Canada and China.
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