Stress Makes You Stupid
Training ourselves to behave correctly in the right conditions is critical to success. Any system is an aggregate, rather than isolated, individual parts acting independently. Unfortunately, we’re no better off in the business world. In response to the pressure cooker that is the work environment, underpinned by looming deadlines, financial problems, traffic, competition, and conflicts, we tend to employ similar tactics as on the playing field. Before the big presentation, we put on our uniform and chant to ourselves “I’m a great salesperson” after consuming three cups of coffee and two donuts. We walk into the prospect’s office, wide-eyed, ready to go, and promptly forget everything we prepared to say.
I have demonstrated this cortical shutdown several times in front of both large and small groups. The exercise, which I first saw deployed by Dr. Alan Watkins, selects an enthusiastic volunteer from the audience. I assign them the simple task of counting down by threes from an arbitrary number I pick. As the person stands in front of the group, I then select another participant from the crowd to serve as a “coach”. Their responsibility is to give positive encouragement and helpful advice to the other person as they perform the countdown. Since the exercise is meant to mimic pressures we face every day at work, I also place a timer in front of them and tell them they have 30 seconds to complete 10 countdowns by three. The audience’s job is to listen for errors, and in the spirit of the game show Family Feud, give a loud buzzing noise if the volunteer gets one wrong. Typically, the subject in front of the group gets the first two right, and then something strange happens. They either give a wildly wrong answer or completely freeze and stop counting. I recently had a teacher in front of the group, who had vast experience speaking in public, start her countdown from 507. Her first two answers were correct – 504...501 – but her third answer was 597. What? I have yet to have anyone get more than two correct before faltering.
What’s happening here? How could a perfectly capable, intelligent adult suddenly not be able to perform basic mathematics in front of a small group? Unconsciously as I select volunteers, they became nervous. As they stood to walk to the front of the room, their heart rate continued to rise, even though still unaware that their system was becoming chaotic. As the heart rate became erratic, they stopped getting coherent signals to the brain, and their fate was sealed. Under pressure, our brains shut down. Multiply these stress-inducing factors among many people, and you produce a work environment that is ripe with the “Toxic Triangle” of destructive leadership, displayed by erratic and selfish behavior, enabled by susceptible, immature followers, who are insubordinate, resulting in a conducive environment that supports it all. We see the devastating results of this these self-induced lobotomies in our companies, schools, communities, and government. We have collectively given ourselves the “stupid” pills.
Art Padilla, Robert Hogan, and Robert Kaiser coined the “Toxic Triangle” label when studying Fidel Castro’s effect on Cuba. While clearly illustrating Castro’s destructive actions, their conclusions were a bit more ambiguous, and highlight the confusion that surrounds the topic of leadership. Not until you understand the interplay between the behaviors, characteristics, and motivations of leaders and followers can you uncover the context that makes it possible. Leaders or followers are not automatically endowed as good, nor should their actions be assumed to be consistently beneficial for the group. When analyzing destructive leadership, you have to consider the full range of outcomes rather than exclusively focusing on characteristics and motives of the leader. While nobody acts alone, the common thread is the introduction of stress into the system.
When the human system is stressed, destructive and irrational decision making takes place. If we continually react to stimuli on an unconscious level, overcoming obstacles and achieving goals becomes difficult, if not impossible. What’s more, society-at-large becomes at risk if its leadership is not aware of the conditions that create such chaos. How do we tame it? According to Dartmouth University, stress comes from four main areas:
1. Environmental factors, such as excessive noise, problems with roommates or neighbors, uncomfortable living space, bad weather, natural disasters, busy traffic, pollution.
2. Social factors, including deadlines, financial problems, group projects, disagreements, demands on time and attention, dating, balancing work and school, loss of a loved one, conflicts with family.
3. Physiological factors, such as adolescence, illness, accidents, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, alcohol or drug use/abuse, sleep disturbances, muscle tension, headaches, upset stomach.
4. Thoughts, including our perception of events, expecting too much from ourselves or others, being perfectionistic, being competitive, making decisions, having a pessimistic attitude, expecting a problem-free living, worrying, being self-critical, making assumptions.
According to Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Dave Grossman, in the book On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace, during World War II 25% of ALL U.S. soldiers admitted to peeing in their pants. 12.5% admitted to pooping their pants. Similar surveys among SWAT and police officers find that this loss oh physiological control is more common than expected. In extreme, life-or-death situations, we can learn some important lessons. When under stress, the most important thing you can do is find something you can get conscious control over, even when you are in a chaotic environment. Tactical breathing is a technique to control your self-regulated sympathetic (Fight, Flight, Freeze) response. The only two responses of the nervous system that you can control are your breathing rate and blinking of the eyes. During their training, Special Ops personnel have to demonstrate tactical breathing by intentionally slowing their heart rate from a stress-induced high to an average resting rate within a few minutes. Why do they do this?
Electrically speaking the heart generates thousands of times more electrical output than the brain. If you want to record somebody’s brain waves, you have to mathematically remove the heartbeat since it is so much larger. If you start to control the rhythm of your breath that will start to change the physiology and you’ll start to become more coherent. When you change that pattern, you’re sending better quality fuel from the heart to the brain, and the entire physiological system will work better. And when the brain works better, you’re more perceptive, you’re more insightful, you’re more clear-thinking, you can understand how to problem-solve. In business, we’re so focused on psychology and tactics that we tend to ignore the fundamental basics of getting into a coherent state.