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We’ve all heard that stress is a killer, but did we know that stress is also our friend?
Stress can affect our workplace performance for better and worse. Making the distinction between good stress and bad stress isn’t always straight forward though.
The dictionary definition of stress is ‘a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.’ A complete absence or demanding circumstances, of challenge, in our work lives tends to produce a state of stagnation because without a certain level of pressure, motivation drops through the floor and performance inevitably suffers.
Competitive athletes illustrate this relationship between stress and peak performance well. Doing what they do is not easy but it’s the very fact that they exert themselves in the face of demanding training schedules that allows them to excel. But they walk a fine line between enough of the right kind of pressure, the pressure that keeps challenging them to grow, and the sort of pressure that injures them, inhibiting their ability to compete altogether. One of the keys to staying on this fine line for athletes is their protective habits. Without the right protective habits to support the intensity of their training, like sports massage, optimal nutrition and stretching, instead of being a catalyst for achievement, the stress will become damaging.
We can draw a lesson from athletes and apply it to stress in the workplace. Bringing awareness to the habits that support (or under support) our lives, and them making incremental changes over time to address any weak spots we’ve noticed pays off hugely in terms of increasing our capacity to manage stress. It’s vital to take this approach because if work stress gets the better of us over a long enough period of time, our ability to do our work well suffers and worse, there can be a high price to pay in terms of both physical and mental heath.
The health risk of stress is a very real one. When our body continuously releases the stress hormone cortisol, these chronic elevated levels can lead to serious issues. Our immune system gets suppressed, blood pressure and blood sugar increases, we become more susceptible to heart disease, cancers, anxiety and depression – a common feature of depression is heightened levels of cortisol in the blood. Cortisol has also been shown to damage and kill cells in the part of our brain responsible for memory and evidence suggests chronic stress causes prematurely ages the brain.
On the flip side, it is these same stress hormones that make stress, at the right levels and handled well, a performance enhancer. For example, norepinephrine, another stress hormone, makes us more responsive by keeping us in an aware and focused state. And although on the one hand prolonged stress has been observed to kill off brain cells in the hippocampus, University of California research suggests that shorter bursts of stress, in the form of challenging tasks, actually doubled the proliferation of brain cells in the hippocampus, and in fact improves memory function rather than depletes it.
So what can we draw from this contradictory account of how stress affects us? Well it all comes down to walking that fine line between the sort of stress we can manage and grow with and the stress that debilitates us. And to reiterate, critical to walking that line are the protective factors we build in to our daily lives. Cultivating habits that promote positive emotion, engagement, good relationships, a sense of meaning and attainment will all build our resilience over time.
In the context of work there is however one notable factor that is not directly in our control. That is the support we receive from our leadership. In terms of this support, having leaders who place realistic expectations on their team’s time capacity is flagged up by multiple studies as a major determinant of avoiding negative stress in the workplace. Skill training around time management and prioritisation of course go a long way in helping to resolve this, but ultimately, knowing how indirectly control this, to ‘manage up’ and promote leadership’s awareness of front line reality and what sustainable output looks like is the only way to tackle this issue at its root.
Ultimately, whether we are going to crumble under pressure or flourish in the face of stress at work comes down to both our own protective habits and equally the responsiveness of leadership.
It’s a two-way deal.
If you are fulfilling your side of the bargain and investing in your own resilience, but the level of challenge is unrelenting, unrealistic and you are not receiving the skills training and support that you need from above, it is time to question whether any job is worth risking your health for.
It’s widely recognised across industries that mastering innovation gives us the competitive edge we need to thrive. With game-changing technologies constantly shifting the ground beneath us, being creative and having the ability to roll out responsive new products and services is vital. A common question that this shift poses is ‘are innovation and creativity the same thing?’ And the answer is yes but no.
They are closely related. Innovation can not happen without creativity as creativity is a major part of the innovation process. Creativity can happen without innovation though. Creative ideas, expressions, perspectives and acts don’t ultimately need to produce any new tangibles. Whereas innovation does.
To be creative all you really need is your imagination which can draw on your all internally held experiences to come up with new connections and perspectives. To innovate successfully though, you first need info from your current external environment. You need input. Observations, data, facts about your industry, customers, resources and so on. And the quality and breadth of the data that goes in will directly impact of the quality of your outputs at the end of the innovation process, so this stage is definitely not to be rushed or skipped past.
After that explorative research has been done, innovation then does require you to get creative and let the imaginative, reflective, playful side of your brain have free reign. This is where creativity and innovation intersect and at this stage of the process, they are arguably the same thing.
But when your brainstorms are over and you’ve got your short list of new services and products that you think would be worth developing, it’s time to leave creativity behind and get your lab-coat on. The next step in the innovation process is about business experimentation. Methodically testing your assumptions and checking that the idea does deliver the outputs that you need it to. And you do all this experimenting at a low-risk level where you can afford to fail.
Only once you have completed this experimental stage will you know which ideas to fully resource and roll-out. And for the roll out to succeed, you want to have organisational and process-led thinking (as opposed to creative thinking) at the fore. This ensures that you’ll be executing your innovation as efficiently and effectively as possible.
So returning to the question of ‘are innovation and creativity the same thing?’ I’d sum up that innovation is an inherently creative process, but one that needs us to extend ourselves beyond creative thinking if it is to succeed. If you want to build up the innovative muscle of your organisation a good approach is draw on the strengths of the whole team, not just the lateral thinking abilities of the most creative members. By levering everyone’s different abilities into the various stages of innovation, you’ll succeed in building a strong innovation capacity into your business.
Working relationships at their best are productive, co-operative and even joyful. Frequently though, despite our best intentions they can be frustrating sources of conflict and misunderstanding.
Here are 4 ways that communication affects our relationships at work for better or worse, depending on the awareness and skills we bring.
1. Communication Style
Some colleagues and clients are easier to talk to than others. When communication seems effortless with another person the chances are it’s because we share a similar communication style with them.
We’ve all got a communication style comfort zone that we automatically operate from. There are 4 broad styles, Promoter, Controller, Facilitator and Analyst.
Knowing which style you have and learning how to talk in the style of another person with them will close the distance between you, minimising frustration, misunderstanding and distrust.
2. Active listening
Have you ever worked with someone who talks a lot about what’s going on with them but rarely checks in to see how you’re doing? Contrast the quality of that sort of working relationship with one where your colleague does take an interest in your challenges and achievements. Which relationship grows you and motivates you more? The answer is obvious.
When someone takes the time to listen to us, to give us the space to finish our sentences and then ask us follow-up questions that delve deeper into what we have just said, we feel valued by them. And it’s the working relationships in which the participants feel mutually valued that are the most productive ones.
Play a game next time you speak to a colleague. Try to avoid using the word ‘I’ and give your self 5 points for every ‘How, what and why’ question you ask them in response to what they’re saying. Invite them to play the same game next time they talk to you.
3. Inflammatory language
When the workplace is a source of stress, 9 times out of 10 it’s not the work that is the problem, it’s certain people that we work with. When we experience conflict with colleagues, a big determinant of that conflict is our own inability to see the role that we ourselves are playing in keeping the conflict alive. We are often so focused on the failures of the other person and how they are making things difficult that we overlook the only half of the equation that we have any real control over; our own actions. Specifically, the language we chose to use.
Practicing Non-Violent Communication weans us off the habit of using ‘inflammatory language’ – language the carries implicit judgment or blame. It helps us to give people objective feedback aimed at a behavioural level rather than identify level, rather bombarding them with our emotionally loaded opinions of what they should and shouldn’t have done. And importantly, it enables us to take responsibility for our own emotional reaction to the situation rather than making it all about them.
When we feel under attack we get defensive. Listening stops, progress stops and conflicts don’t get resolved. Non Violent Communication takes the ‘attack’ out of our language use and builds foundations for more understanding and respectful relationships with even the most challenging colleagues.
It’s nice to be nice and most us like to be liked. This can sometimes backfire and negatively impact on our relationships at work though. Our desire to be seen as agreeable often causes us to agree to taking things on that we don’t actually have the time or headspace to do. If we’re in the habit of doing this, it runs the risk of storing up resentment in our work relationships. We resent others for asking too much of us and the they resent us for letting them down when we commit to more obligations than we can properly fulfil. So learn to skilfully say no. Here’s how:
ii) Acknowledge their request. This shows that you have really listened to what they have asked of you and signals respect.
iii) ‘I’m going to say no.’ This is simultaneously assertive and emotionally considerate use of language; you are linguistically ‘softening the blow’ of the no by structuring it this way.
iv) Give one good single reason why. Less is more here. More than one reason will start to sound like excuses.
v) Offer an alternative, if possible. This sends the message that you are supportive, and the support has to be on terms that also suit you.
Practice this technique to build and maintain healthy, authentic and boundaried workplace relationships.
Whatever the communication skills are that we want to develop, the key is to take ourselves out of auto-pilot and into an awareness of the big shifts we can achieve in our work relationships with small changes to how we talk and listen.
The Harvard Business Review article: “Don’t Waste Your Time on Networking Events” got a lot of attention because I think it struck a chord with so many people. We all know that a bit like many team meetings, networking events can be a colossal waste of time.
Attending networking event after networking event and having very little to show for it is a classic ‘Busy Fool’ manoeuvre that we should all watch out to avoid.
Why do we so often fall in to this ineffectual networking trap? I think there’s two main reasons: one reason is the short-term, illusory sense of achievement it gives us. That gratifying sense of ticking a task of the list but failing to question the task’s actual value. In other words, we mistake activity for output. The second reason is we simply lack the skills to make the networking event worth our while.
Successful networking is about growing relationships with people worth knowing and fortunately there are some straight forward strategies that can help us to do just that. Here are six to consider:
1. Do your homework
If you can, check who else is going and decide who in particular you’d like to meet. Once you have set your sights on a few people, do a bit of internet stalking – check their LinkedIn and Twitter feed to see what connections and common interests you have, and what’s on their mind. Knowing where the common ground lies will make having a good conversation a lot easier. It also makes us more likeable. Research suggests we have a preference for people whom we perceive to be similar to ourselves in some way, so discovering and focusing our attention on commonalities is a great strategy.
2. Pretend you’re a detective
Every hear the expression ‘Interesting people are interested people.’? You already know everything there is to know about yourself, so don’t waste your valuable networking time talking about Numero Uno if you can help it. You’ll learn nothing and impress no-one. Do have a short, powerful introduction about what you do (NB Under 15 seconds, and not just your job title but something memorable about what your work actually involves / achieves). Beyond that though, focus on learning about others rather than talking about yourself. Demonstrate your interest in others by actively listening to them, using open-ended follow up questions (i.e. what, why, how questions). Studies show being a good listener will make you more likeable, and being likeable lies at the heart of being an excellent networker who gets good connections and leads wherever they go.
3. Ask not what this person can do for you.
A common mentality to networking is ‘What’s in it for me?’ and there are a two main reasons why this can be problematic. First of all, it can be difficult to tell whether or not a person will be useful to know on first meeting them. Opportunities usually emerge further down the line when you have built up a bit of a relationship and some trust, and not on the day that you meet. Second of all, the ‘What’s in it for me?’ mind-set is so unappealing that when we detect it in others – and we can usually sniff it a mile off – there’s a good chance it will alienate us and make us wary of them, rather than form the foundation of a productive connection. So the antidote is to flip the thinking on its head and ask ‘What’s in it for them?’ Ask yourself why getting to know and staying in touch with you will be beneficial to the other person? What information, contacts or encouragement do you bring? Work this part of the equation out and the the ‘What’s in it for you’ side will take care of itself.
4. Lever body language
Numerous scientific studies all say the same thing about this: your body language speaks loud and clear and leaves a lasting impression on others whether you are aware of it or not. So always begin with a handshake, remember to smile and keep good eye contact, and to absolutely maximize your likeability factor, be sure to nod a lot.
5. Have fun
A recent ComRes poll shows the majority of people feel uncomfortable while networking. To get good at it you have to find a way of making it enjoyable. The obvious answer to many, but not really the best approach, is to down plenty of Dutch courage if there happens to booze to hand. I mean what could possibly go wrong? A safer strategy is to ‘Gamify’ it. Make a points system, for example 5 points for every handshake. 10 for every LinkedIn connection afterwards, 25 for every enjoyable conversation you have. You can even think of some obscure and amusing vocabulary that you get points for skilfully slipping into conversations. The possibilities are endless. Then if you go in with a target in mind, say to score over 200 points by the end of the event, you will find yourself fully engaged. It’s even a funny conversational gambit – telling others at the event what you’re up to, about your ‘game’.
6. Keep in touch
Afterwards take a few notes on the professional interests of the people you meet and any personal information relevant for rapport building – for example if they’re going sailing in the Greek Islands that summer, jot that down. Anything in particular you bonded over at the event, write that down too. Then follow people up within 3 days to say ‘Great to have met you, let’s stay in touch’ and after that remember to share interesting, funny or useful stuff with them at least 2 or 3 times a year, with a friendly message checking in with them. And schedule these contacts, or else they won’t happen. With a rapidly growing network you’ll probably need a reminder system to keep it ticking over.
So back to the question this blog began with: are networking events worth it? Simple answer is yes, if you are any good at networking. The good news is, anyone can learn to be.
Take a look at this photo.
What is interesting about the photo is that it is not actually a photo. It is an acrylic painting with a realism that beggars belief: Big Self Portrait by Chuck Close.
What is also interesting about the painting is his artistic method and what it has to teach us about achieving excellence in our own professional or personal life.
Using a photograph as a guide, he adopted a technique employed in a lot of Renaissance artwork. He placed a numbered and lettered grid over the photo – thousands of pixel-like squares – to recreate the picture one square at a time. When you are looking at his Big Self Portrait all you are actually looking at is a precise mosaic of simple black, white and grey squares.
How does this apply to to us, and to excellence?
Big, magnificent, shimmering excellence, if you look closely at it, is nothing more that a carefully arranged mosaic of precise, simple actions. And by precise, I mean actions that are taken with intention, with a clear final goal in sight. Chuck Close’s intention was to perfectly replicate his photographic image, and this determined which exact paint shade he chose to use to fill in his very first square with, out of an array of possible shades that he could have applied. Then he chose which shade to use for the next square, and the next one and the next. Applying choice informed by intention to every single one.
So the science of the art of excellence is sublime in its simplicity. There’s just three parts to it.
1) Being extremely clear on your goal. What will excellence look like once you’ve achieved it?
2) Treating your time more like the way Chuck Close treats a canvas, i.e. like a precious resource out of which there is the potential to create something excellent.
3) Focussing on the very, many, very small choices for action that every day presents, and applying more intention to actions you choose, always with the end goal in mind.
For example when I am on a roll, I somehow manage to drag myself to the gym down the road and run 5k every weekday morning. I do it because I know I’m happier and work better that way and I feel pleased with myself when I do this. But! After thinking how I could take more of a ‘Chuck Close’ approach to excellence, I realised that the 45 minutes I spend running, is actually still in some ways an empty square I could be doing something with. So now instead of suffering the cheesy gym workout music they pump out, or even listening to my own tunes, I put in my earphones, harness the wonder of YouTube and learn a huge amount of useful stuff that I can apply to my work goals during that time on the treadmill.
45 minutes per weekday morning multiplied by 52 weeks is 195 hours of learning every year. That’s a third of a postgraduate certificate. It sets myself at a considerable advantage against the theoretical me who inhabits the parallel universe where I am still not making that particular intentional choice.
And the real beauty of it is that it is such a tiny adjustment, such an imperceptible choice that has been exercised that it doesn’t feel like any effort or work.
Getting better, inching towards excellence is, it turns out, as simple as 1,2,3.
With World Mental Health Day putting workplace wellbeing in its crosshairs this year, it is worth asking what workplace wellbeing actually is, as an agenda, as a practice and as an outcome that impacts on individual people’s lives.
Since our work at Light Box began back in 2009, the wave of public interest in wellbeing and mental health has consistently gathered pace. It’s now hard to open a Sunday supplement or newspaper and not stumble across another mental-health story.
The appetite to discuss wellbeing is now huge, along with the surge of initiatives to help people and organisations promote it.
It’s unarguably a sign of progress that some of the stigma that surrounds mental-health has fallen away as a consequence of this upswing in interest, and yet the sceptic in me is uncomfortably aware of how the wellbeing agenda is vulnerable to being hijacked and distorted, and worryingly, how it can be used to eclipse some hard realities that need to be examined.
Played out in the workplace, the wellbeing agenda can go one of two ways.
I’ve heard some great stories about staff teams being treated to wellbeing and resilience training, only to be handed their redundancy notices a few weeks later. Applied cynically, perfunctory wellbeing measures taken in the workplace can be a way of sending staff the message: ‘Can’t cope with unreasonably big workloads / long hours / low pay / scant annual leave? Hmmm, maybe you should be working a bit harder on your well-being, then.’
Done well though, workplace wellbeing can be the basis of thoughtful action for change – not least a change in organisational culture, led from the top. It can be the opportunity for increased self-awareness, assertiveness, improved relationships and yes, self care.
If you get it right, a focus on workplace wellbeing can ensure that the workplace is a source of camaraderie and a place that’s free of blame culture. That it’s a place where each person is allowed to be vulnerable in some way and is called upon to use their particular strengths to create shared value. When the workplace presents an opportunity to meaningfully contribute to something and be thanked for your contribution, then it becomes a haven of security and a source of positive identity in an unpredictable and often difficult world.
In the UK, 11.7 million work days were lost this past year alone due to stress, depression or anxiety related sick leave, and studies consistently show that people are at their most creative and productive on the job when they are feeling happy. The science and statistics speak for themselves: workplace wellbeing is too important to get wrong.
Perhaps a good first step for any organisation with a genuine interest in this, is an honest, inclusive conversation about what works for people’s wellbeing in the workplace, and what works against it.
When we are working well, it feels wonderful. Energy flows along, things get done, tasks get tackled one by one. There’s few things better than that feeling you get when the day draws to a close, that you’ve been productive and moved things on in one way or another.
When we are not working well, it feels very different. There can be a tinge of panic. And a masochism. It can feel like swimming against a current. Whatever we have done well, in the days or weeks before, it often seems like it is not enough, or worse, not relevant. It is as if all the productive, positive action that has gone before dissolves and has no bearing, and we are pushing the gas pedal down hard on an empty tank of fuel.
We might identify this second way of working as the necessary drive to keep going that all success depends on. A healthy no pain, no gain mentality.
But it is not. It’s an impatience, and ultimately it fuels discouragement and demotivation. This way of working quietly erodes our confidence in our abilities to solve problems as they arise and do well. And when confidence is lowered, we don’t approach opportunities in the same way, we don’t act in a bold, creative manner. Instead we shrink back and don’t do so well. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. A trap.
It’s so easy to get sucked into the vortex of this second way of working, and stay unwittingly trapped inside it all day until it spits you out at home time feeling pessimistic, stressed and useless. When this happens it feels so draning, and it so greatly undermines any gains that the first way of working accrues, that it is crucial to watch out for this psychological tendency more and to take its menace more seriously.
Perhaps next time you spot it taking over, consider going on strike against yourself for half an hour, have a walk and some self-talk reminding yourself that working hard is meant to feel good, not bad.
Minds have a tendency to drift into the future, and the influence that the future tends to have on our mind-set is mixed. On the one hand it can give rise to hope. On the other hand it can bring on apprehension, even fear.
Whatever its effects, the main thing to remember about the future is that it is a mythical place. i.e. it does not exist.
And it never will.
If you are dreaming of how next year things could be better – how the summer you have could be more fun than the one just gone, how your earnings could go up, how you could support my family and close friends in bigger, more elaborate ways, when you are preoccupying myself with what’s next – you are loosing sight of what’s now.
And what’s now is the one and only thing you will ever have any influence over. Whether it is your relationships, how you treat myself or your approach to work. It ‘s about the micro choices, the actions and inactions. Is there good music on in the morning when you get ready for work, or is there not? Do you hurry from meeting to meetings ignoring your surroundings or do you not? Do you text a friend on their first day of a new job or do you not? The more you turn your gaze away from the future, the more you will see the kaleidoscope of choices to be made in the now.
Each one tiny. Each one important.
When you look after the now the future looks after itself.
Here’s a James Joyce quote to leave you with that says it all in just a line:
“Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.”
Even if we like a person, it is difficult to predict whether we will continue to get on in the long run and make it through all life’s challenges with our relationship intact. For example, few couples getting married anticipate that one day they fall out and yet 45% of marriages end in divorce.
To better understand why certain relationships endure and remain productive, researcher John Gottman studied the relationships of hundreds of married couples. And incredibly, he was able to predict with 94% accuracy which couples would get divorced and which couples would last the distance.
Using a ratio. He observed that in instances where the positive feedback the couple exchanged exceeded the negative feedback they shared at a ratio of three to one or more, their relationships were resilient. Couples who fell short of this golden ratio of 3:1 however, didn’t fare so well.
John Gottman’s findings have been since been replicated in diverse settings. In businesses and colleges the same feedback ratio continues to be an accurate predictor of whether a group will succeed and flourish, or become weakened over time by disharmony from within.
In light of this research it is worth asking what feedback ratio prevails in your workplace and how that impacts on the team?