In teaching executives stress avoidance, are we
doing exactly the wrong thing?
The piece on executive stress in the June 1, 1998 Ottawa Citizen was like so
many others that have deluged our bookstores and magazine stands over the last decade.
"Sick and Tired", it read. "Public service's hierarchy makes
managers ill, study finds."
With a quarter of a century between us working with executives, we don't doubt for a
moment that organizational structures, processes and hierarchies affect the people who
work in them. We do know this: in our 25 years, we knew our colleagues as executives who
were well-trained, well-informed and well-intentioned. With years of experience, they were
(without exception) committed, dedicated and courageous; they had integrity. They cared
deeply for the task at hand and for the well-being of the people they worked with.
Despite all of this - the rational thinking, their detachment and objectivity - the
humanity of these people would sometimes 'get in the way'. Underlying all that experience
and all that training they were, first and foremost, people. Over time, humanity
took precedence over work-place roles and that small voice inside them began to beckon,
relentlessly, to a different worldview.
When this different worldview begins to collide with the rules and expectations of the
ones that govern the workplace, things happen to anyone working there. Things happen
inside them, where they live.
Beyond the task at hand, that small voice inside begins to argue with the party line.
Then, anxiety about personal and professional safety begins to creep into your thoughts.
You feel you're being pulled in two directions. The needle on the stress gauge edges up.
Executive Lack of Control
The study the Citizen reported on was commissioned by APEX, the Association of
Professional Executives in the Public Service. It attributed the increase in physical and
emotional distress within the ranks of public service executives not to overwork but to a
lack of control.
Control. An interesting word, that. Think of all those times you've had control.
You've had authority over the budget and the people. You're the executive , after all.
You've been in charge. Still, you've felt out of control. The people around you haven't
been able to fathom your unease, They pointed out that you were in control. Deep inside
yourself, you knew better.
We live in a culture driven by external indicators and standards. We look outside
ourselves for the rules, procedures, benchmarks, expectations and evidence of our
progress. We have lost our capacity to measure progress and therefore, the quality of our
work and our very lives, by any internal standard.
Here's the problem. Control, or lack of it, is determined by an internal standard.
That's why you've been in charge, according to the organization chart and people around
you, and have nonetheless felt out of control. You feel it inside yourself. It's a sense,
a physical thing. It's deeply personal.
We've now bumped up against two of the paramount rules for executives. First: keep the
personal away from the professional; keep your emotions and your home life out of the
workplace, and make sure your staff do, too. Second: the rational, logical, reasoning ways
of the mind - the intellect - are always better than the intuitive processes of the body.
The executive primer says that to be professional, we must bring the wisdom and
perspective of distance to the resolution of our daily challenges.
That may work well for balancing a budget but it lease us impotent to balance our
Understanding How Stress Works
The Citizen article examined the stress on executives who managed a massive
four-year downsizing in Canada's public service. In it, we get facts and figures and
statistical trends. Predictably, we don't get any insight into the workings of stress
itself. We're willing only to talk about the shifts in numbers; the dollars and cents of
it; the timeframes. As a corporate culture, we speak the language of quantifiable data.
It's as if we assume we all hold a common understanding of what stress is, how it
operates, and how it can be beaten. It's as if we all agree it can be beaten, and that it
should - by everyone paying attention to studies like these. But is it true? Do we all
understand what we're talking about?
What we aren't talking about is our pain in witnessing people we know lose their jobs;
our anxiety that we might lose our own; our guilt in being the bearer of the news that
sent someone out the door in tears, rage or desperation: all the things you'd feel
yourself were you in their shoes. What we're not paying attention to is the conflict in
values and the assaults on our personal integrity when what is 'required' is in total
contravention of our personal beliefs. Yet we proceed because to do otherwise would put us
at risk, personally.
The turmoil is the stress that is not so readily quantified. These are the internal
pressures which, ignored, grip the body. Over time, that grip damages spirit, mind and
eventually the malleable tissues of the body itself. Isn't this what we should be talking
about when we talk about executive stress?
The distinguishing feature of the APEX study is the finding that executives who feel in
control of the decisions they make and how they do their jobs are healthy, even thriving -
however heavy the workload. These fortunate few will find their professional decisions
aligned with their personal values: there is no other explanation. Absent for them are the
guilt and resentment, the powerlessness and disaffection that come from doing what we
don't want to do but have to. Without these strong internal cues to disrupt it, the body
simply does what it is designed to do naturally - stay well.
Our sense of being in control is, simply, the internal coherence that comes from having
our internal reality line up with our external behaviors. If you believe you can drive the
car in the snowstorm, you're calm, and you probably can; you're really in the driver's
seat. If you doubt you can, you're agitated, and you should probably stay off the road.
Without this experience of internal coherence at work, or anywhere else for that
matter, we feel invisible and powerless, unable to affect our own lives. Our vulnerability
leads to stress.
Recognizing Internal Resources
We've invested heavily in teaching executives how to think about the content of work;
about the requirements of the job; and about the rules, regulations and expectations of
the system. What we haven't taught executives is to pay attention to how they think; to
notice how their bodies work and govern their ability to function effectively; how their
nervous systems work and how to work with them instead of against them; how to recognize
and manipulate the internal components of thought that result in the way they feel inside
- their state of resourcefulness of lack thereof - and consequently, the choices they make
and the way they behave.
Diligently, we've taught our workforce how to monitor the external world, and how to
respond to its demands. We've eschewed the lessons of the internal world. We don't even
think about , let alone pass on to someone else, its mindful application to creating for
ourselves lives that work - at home and at the office. To regain a sense of control, it's
imperative to shift perspective from the outside to the inside; to notice there is nothing
going on inside you that belongs to anyone but you; and that you alone can improve your
environment at work and, with it, your own prospects for emotional and physical
We're confident in our ability to assess and manipulate the externals and to make a
difference in results. We've been highly schooled in our proficiency in working the
outside to make things change; we're rewarded for it. Small surprise that we shy away from
anything requiring a plunge into the netherworld of internal states! Not only are we not
trained in them, we have for decades been discouraged from even noticing them. Get those
internal messengers to 'therapy', we're told. They're terribly personal: no room in the
workplace for any of that. Many of us experience our inner workings as dysfunctional and
adversarial, best avoided at any cost.
Stress is an inside job, an internal response to an external cue. Those who feel less
stress are those whose internal responses leave them feeling resourceful, competent,
knowing that they can choose intelligently and safely. The experience of safety is the
experience of knowing I can stand firmly in my own truth and handle the consequences.
For our lives to change, we must be both willing and able to change them. The first
step is to figure out that something else is required; that we need to do something
differently, to think differently or behave differently. Physical symptoms are messengers
that become impossible to ignore over time, simply because the body deteriorates. Try
getting anywhere without it! By the time your body manifests symptoms, you're well on your
way to trouble.
Listen to Your Fears
Perhaps we should consider something we haven't
previously considered: that getting control over our own lives won't come by working the
outside but by acknowledging and honoring the inside. Power can't be imposed from the
outside in. No one can 'empower' us but ourselves. Power comes with feeling safe, willing
and competent; feeling resourceful enough to do or be something different.
Rather than reorganizing one more time, perhaps we could begin by telling ourselves the
truth. Not anyone else, mind you. Just ourselves. Perhaps we could allow ourselves to look
at what we fear, what we keep ourselves locked into by our continuing efforts to silence
Why not begin to notice - consciously - things inside you, for a change? Notice when
you hold your breath. Notice how you talk to yourself. Notice how frequently fear, in one
of its many forms, enters into that internal dialogue you have with yourself. Begin to
notice the pictures you make in your head of the way things are bound to go badly. Hear
your own predeterminations and simulations of what will happen in conversations before
you've actually held them. Do you create a lot of self-fulfilling prophecies?
Notice, too, that turmoil you feel when you ignore your instincts to not make waves or
transgress the party line. Notice how, in fixing on the consequences of your actions, you
keep yourself from noticing the other consequences, in wear and tear on yourself.
Executive development programs don't really teach us how to think. They don't teach us
how to think things all the way through. For all our training can we ever, therefore,
really progress beyond the status quo?
Executive development programs don't teach us quantum biology. They don't teach us the
power of our own nervous systems and how to work with them instead of against them. They
don't teach us that our behaviors are driven internally by our emotional states; or, if
they do, they teach us only avoidance therapy. They don't teach us how to work with inner
signs and stressors as internal strategies, or recipes, for what eventually manifests as
our own behaviors.
That makes for a serious omission because collectively, our behaviors create the
environments in which we live and work. IBQ