Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Managing Stress - Part 1

I was reading my iPad today and came across a wired.com article on stress; link at bottom of this post. Oh yes, the picture is of a steak quesadilla with bourbon sauce I made at a bachelors party. Trying to get my wrist back in shape as far as food work goes.

Back to the article; it's worth the read. While it brings up development of a vaccine for stress, it's main focus is on what causes harmful stress, and challenges the notion that being busy and operating intensely results in stress. The condition that doesn't kill you outright, but aggravates other conditions such as the risk of stroke.

I want to share a few points that hopefully can help friends and readers approach their activities (profession included) with some additional vigor and prevent some of the bad stress. I'll do this in two parts. First, I'll talk about harmful stress as a result of unmeaningful work, and then the proposed stress reduction points from this article, as well as some of my own.

I'll also pull in a small story from an unrelated activity to show you why it's worth another look at this played out topic. A few months back, I went to precision rifle school having been a competitive shooter for some time, and recently an instructor. Above the door to the class room there was a sign that said "Rifles Only. Fight Smart." For a little background, the rifle training focused specifically on long distance shooting, not the classless up-close "spray and pray" you see on the movies. This was my way of taking my competitive abilities to the next level. The rifles used, are generally no more than upgraded hunting rifles (simple stuff), a far cry from machine guns even dating back to WWI. Why then, are military sharpshooters one of the most requested and feared tactical units at a commanders disposal? It's not the weaponry, it's the brains behind the trigger. They fight smarter. They're what is referred to as force multiplier, or in plain language, true leverage. What are you doing to exploit leverage points?

Hold that thought and let's move onto meaningless work. An example of meaningless work would be anything you don't know the purpose behind, is not fascinating, or is obviously not going to be used. An example of meaningful work, for me would be crafting a product presentation that ties nicely into requirements from a prospect. I know why they're looking at their product. I know why my work is important. I know they appreciate my effort. I recognize I don't win every deal. I did choose this profession and enjoy what I do. Obviously there are times when I doubt this. When I doubt this, it begins to bug me, and I mentally check out ... start thinking about vacation. When I don't doubt any of this, I forget what time it is. What I didn't understand was that I was experiencing a stress model that was articulated in this article.

The "Demand-Control" model of stress proposes that the damage from stress is significantly increased through a lack of control over your work, rather than the sheer amount of stress itself. An example would be being forced to generate meaningless reports that no one reviews, and yet you're required to do them. If you know that much of your work feels meaningless, there are a few paths to take. One, try to remove all the why's from your current tasking. Fortunately at work, it's very much encouraged that I always ask why. If you can't remove the why's, try to build a sense of pleasure from doing something well. If reducing the number of WTF's per day isn't something you can control, try NLP.

NLP or Neuro Linguistic Programming has a good application here, in that one can trigger specific physiological responses by thinking an unrelated thought. This is almost like a mental drug. Call it up when you need to. A loose comparison would be your "Happy Place" however, you can program in more specific responses and feelings other than just being happy. Basically you relive a situation with the qualities (or modalities) you want to feel on command, relink them to another thought. Then you can call up those qualities on command. It takes a little practice though. Use it whenever you deal with someone you don't like. Richard Bandler, as an author/researcher is a good place to start.

Another good reason to use NLP when you don't have all the why's answered is because you can't answer all of them. It's been stated that humans don't deal well with uncertainty. You could approach this by being okay with not knowing things, which I do do sometimes. But at that time there needs to be trust. Either you know all the whys, or you trust in the direction, leader, strategy etc. Fighting smart here would be to increase the trust between you and whoever else has a hand in what you do.

For managers, it's understandable that you don't have answers to all the why's. May I propose that you ask your reports if they at least trust in the direction. If they don't, it's probably not you, it's just that they haven't seen around the corner, and that's the role of a good leader. Be one and help them see what's coming ahead. Share with them some of the executive conversations you've had. It might even be a good topic for a regular team meeting. Instead of status updates, invest in a good CRM tool and buy your time back for meaningful discussions. An example would be the classic "We need to tighten down on expenses." Everyone hears that. At your executive meetings, ask for the reason behind it. If I'm one of your reports and you tell me that we're conserving cash because we're picking up companies or looking to hire more people, I'll be more likely to spend it like it were my own. And this whole discussion of why is, in my opinion a cultural shift with the abundance of information. Before, few people had the answers and if they did, they harbored them. There would be little incentive to ask why. Now, it's important to know why, and why that reason is authentic (one step better than truth on paper).

Now in the interest of fighting smart, if you've already tried to figure out why what you're doing is important but are stumped, ask your manager. This is a way of building trust. The point here to managers is to not breach that trust or at least be upfront about mishaps. Ultimately we all work for someone, whether that's directly for the customer, or for your manager. If you deal directly with customers, ask them why they're requesting something. Just be respectful of the "give-take" principle. You might say, "I'm happy to do this for you, and if you can give me a better sense of why this is a big deal, perhaps we can find you some additional help." (If you can give me more, I'll give you more) Worse case scenario is that your work specifies repetitive activities that don't allow for innovation. However I'm hard pressed to believe that a good manager or leader won't be receptive to your ideas on improvements. Run the idea by a select coworker first to make sure your pitch doesn't suck. If your manager is not receptive without explaining why, make a mental note. But you have to be fair and make sure you're addressing both the give and take with your pitch. "Here's what we should do. This is why it makes sense. I can get this done because. Now this is what I need to do so."

There are a variety of books on managing upwards, helping your manager provide you with better objectives and tasking. A lot are just plain cheesy. To sum things up, you have an obligation to let your manager know what you're good at and what you're inclined to do. You need to ask for what you want, and have to be ready to offer up things in exchange. If you are a manager, you have an obligation to your reports to help them improve their work, by reducing the WTF's per day, and increasing their understanding behind the work they do. If there is a generational gap (if you're 20-30 yrs old), know that a sense of entitlement is a huge dislike of senior management, as expressed by my exec coach. They love our sense of charity and recognition of causes outside our own. But entitlement seems to be a pervasive negative theme. Be smart, don't sound like a brat. Sell yourself. You can get what you want. Just show some skills first.

Now on to ways to prevent harmful stress. I'll comment on those in my next blog post =) I figured I'd start with the "why" first. Till next time.

Referenced article here:

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