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This Week's ERN


interbiznet presents the Bugler
July 2, 2001

Hot Monster
Sumsers perspective of the recent TMP acquisition of HotJobs. Read more in the Electronic Recruiting News.

Thinking Donuts
Science has known for quite some time that the stress response takes its toll physically and mentally. Research has linked high levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) and persistent stress with heart disease and with damage to brain structures critical for forming new memories. Cortisol also makes it more of a challenge for individuals to think clearly (rather than act emotionally). Most recently, reports have indicated that people are feeling overworked and overstressed and are unsure about their jobs.

Individual variability is one factor in how a person manages stress. How is any worker's performance related to this stress factor? How does HR get this information without crossing legal lines, and what do you do with the information once you get it? What can a person do to increase their functioning?

I posed these questions to one of my favorite people, Andrea Maloney-Schara. As a consultant, she is most interested in understanding how to increase knowledge about people's ability to function at higher levels (which she does with large systems, like organizations, and with individuals). The incredible power behind her thinking is natural systems theory, which suggests that one person can have the whole system in his head. So, you don't need everyone to change the system - just one persistent person with the desire to change his functioning in it. That person is the pioneer, because he will risk all to learn.

She sets the stage with Y2K. "Many people ended up saying that so much of a fuss made about this and it ended up being nothing. Well, a trillion dollars was spent so you didn't notice there was a big problem. Very substantial people took that problem very seriously and adapted to it. And the consequence was that society went through it without it being a big deal. So, preparation requires awareness of the changing conditions and of your own internal goals and beliefs."

Awareness, then, would be the central principle. The human brain likes equilibrium. Yet, adaptation is what it is really good at. It gets information about changes in the outside world and adapts. But, the brain is also saddled with an evolutionary past, with built-in protective devices, one of which is the stress response. If you look at your life history you will see a pattern of response in one direction or the other: Over arousal or under arousal in relationship to a challenge. So it stands to reason that to gain flexibility, doing something different changes the brain in relationship to the habit.

"You know you have a hard time talking to your boss. Who doesn't? It's a natural hierarchy. It's the same way with our parents. We've been taught for millions of years to give way to the hierarchy. So, put your head in the bosses office and say, 'I saw a very funny comic in the paper did you happen to see it? It was so funny it made my day.' Then dart back out. Get in the habit of doing something a little unexpected to gather your own strength and reduce the tension. We are in these hierarchies and there's a great deal of tension about changing position. In organizations, uncertainty happens as people are trying to take the steering wheel - alliances are being formed, you don't know who to vote for, you don't know whom to side with, whose head will roll. People are very unsure of themselves, of the economy, and unsure-ness breeds anxiety, and therefore symptoms."

What do you do to lower the anxiety? As simple as it sounds, you try to have personal contact with people that is low key. By making a comment as simple as "That's a great tie!" or by asking a question, it lets people know you are relaxed and focused on positives or even interested in their ideas. It takes one person of persistent effort to change the emotional atmosphere in the environment.

"When I came to work at a certain place, I had been accepted without finishing college, so I had a very unusual background. Some people said I was the teacher's pet, because I got in without having a terminal degree. Shortly after, I heard the scuttlebutt - you know what people say about you more or less. Some people thought I was okay, some people had already judged me. So, some mornings I would bring in doughnuts. I would come in and talk with the receptionist and leave aside 10 or 15 minutes for anyone, who wanted to talk and get to know me or just pass through my energy space, and they would pick up a donut for doing it. I just created a little calm time in the morning. I would say 6 months of doing that made a difference.

Now, it makes a difference in me, the person who wants to change the environment. That is important because I am the one picking up the anxiety - nobody else may even feel it. Everyone else might be perfectly comfortable calling me a name. I just might not be comfortable accepting that position."

Sometimes you walk into a situation in which you become the focus. You didn't ask for it, you just got it. When you are the subject of focus and the intensity is coming your way, what do you do to diffuse it? "It takes you being proactive, doing something about your little corner of the world, and hopefully other people will benefit from it. You don't know really know what the side effect is on other people - their cholesterol might be going up from eating the donuts - you just don't know, and you can never make the assumption that what you are doing is good for other people because you have no idea."

It would be an interesting study, she thinks, to look at the creation of emotional space - the belief, if you will, in the worker contributing to the company, how that is encouraged, and how that relates to company profit. The need for teamwork, for intellectual capital has increased. How to create emotional space so people can become more productive is something she thinks that companies need to pay attention to.

"You have to have some way of looking at this cost-benefit ratio of how people interact, live together, and create emotional space. If you can't do that, you have a lot of waste in your corporate life, and a lot of turnover. At work, you either let people own you body and soul for $6.95 an hour or for $6 million, or you find a way to create emotional space by creating something they're not willing to give you. The other possibility is that the big boss decides it sounds reasonable that you can increase worker productivity by increasing people's ability to take personal responsibility and think for themselves. Look at G.E. Jack Welsch imbued that whole corporation with permission to challenge people, permission to change the status quo, permission to really look at and think about solutions at the local level. The guy's a genius. Will that culture in G.E. be maintained after he leaves? I don't know. But he turned a miracle job on G.E. and there are people like that who can do it. They are amazing people."

There are options that human resources can offer to its workforce, but people need choices so they can take personal responsibility for figuring out what can enhance their ability to perform. Legal lines get crossed when you want personal information. It is not needed. You ask people what they need and make things available that are all volunteer, just be very careful not to motivate by guilt or peer pressure. She thinks there are interesting and fun studies, that are also inexpensive, that can be done to determine if any intervention actually does decrease stress levels and increase productivity. Does lowering cortisol levels/stress levels increase productivity? It's a study waiting to happen. One thing that is clear - there are hard numbers that need to be applied.

"There are a lot of things that people can do about it, but there are no easy solutions. The person has to be aware and take responsibility for themselves and for figuring out what they are going to do. And, that can be hard work. Life is like a chess game - there are a lot of options and a limited number of rules. When you do one thing you change the whole chessboard."

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