stress at work

Stress – Acknowledge, Accept, Action

The more people I work with, the more I see folks in denial about the stressful situations they frequently find themselves in. So often, people put blinkers on, put their head down and just keep going. Of course, there is a time and place for doing this, but not as often as people believe.

The challenge is, as human beings we are often in denial about the severity of problems and carry on regardless. We may sit there convincing ourselves that things will blow over, or we don’t want to make a fuss, or trying to focus on the things that are going right in the belief that the negative stuff will simply go away.

This can be foolhardy and dangerous for your physical and mental health as well as your career.

Why? Because when we feel stressed, our bodies release the hormone, cortisol. If high levels of circulating cortisol are prolonged, this reduces activity in the frontal cortex of the brain and compromises our attention span, so that we can’t concentrate properly; it adversely affects our short-term memory, perhaps meaning that we forget what someone has just told us; and it lowers our inhibitory mechanisms and therefore we are more likely to make rash or bad decisions. Plus, activity in the hippocampus in the brain is affected so that your declarative memory (factual information and previous experiences) is impaired, which is not helpful in a business situation. If you were looking at someone displaying these characteristics, I wager you would think they are incompetent or a fool. But what if this is you?
And if this isn’t bad enough, prolonged stress halts the production of new brain cells, which negatively affects behaviour and even alters neural plasticity. Even the structure of the brain and connections can be impacted. Of course, one should never underestimate constant or repeated stressors, nagging problems that don’t seem to go away, because they can lead on to depression and anxiety disorders.

How do you know when it’s time to shake off your ostrich feathers and lift your head out of the sand? When you are being inefficient to the point that people begin to lose respect for you or they stop asking you to do things.

Here are three things that can help:

  • Acknowledge – please stop pretending that everything is OK. It’s not a weakness to acknowledge that there are issues to address. Even if you only acknowledge problems to yourself, it is better than ignoring and allowing things to fester.
  • Acceptance – accept that the situation is not perfect, this will help you relax. Denial is highly stressful and unnecessary, especially in business situations. Accept there is a problem and you will start to be able to see more clearly.
  • Action – as cortisol levels recede after following 1. and 2., your frontal lobe activity will increase and you will put your brain in a better state to come up with answers.

Please don’t wait for a time when people think you are less than who you really are. You are not a fool, otherwise you wouldn’t be in the position you hold now. So don’t let stress and those high levels of cortisol secretions impair your effectiveness. Stay in control, use the 3As, stay healthy and enjoy your successes.

business communication

Talk To One Another, Even If It’s Difficult

Sam and Alex are joint senior partners in a professional practice. Until recently they have got on well, but lately their relationship has deteriorated. They can’t agree on anything and they irritate one another terribly. As a consequence, they stay in their own offices and keep out of each other’s way.

One of the biggest problems is when one of them has a meeting with members of the staff, the employees are expected to relay messages from that meeting to the other senior partner. In short, these two managers are acting like a separated married couple using the children as messengers.

I was initially employed by the firm on a consulting assignment to find out why staff turnover was high. I’m sure you can guess the answer.

The employees were tired of feeling they had to walk on eggshells for fear of saying the wrong thing about one senior partner to the other. They were tired of distorted information as messages morphed in translation after translation. They were tired of not being part of a collaborative team and being torn between ‘them and us’ as various members of staff took sides with Alex or Sam.

Customers were noticing the discord at the firm and stress levels were high. Many staff were actively looking for new jobs.

As an important aspect of my assignment to understand the underlying dynamics inside the firm, I spent a lot of time working with Alex and Sam to get to the bottom of their differences. And, as is often the case, the perceived original problems boiled down to poor communication.

After a fair amount of blaming, unkind words and hurt egos, they came to a common ground of understanding. They are not out of the woods completely yet, but at least they are talking to one another now and not using the staff as messengers. You will probably not be surprised that morale in the firm has begun to improve.

If you know of anyone in this situation, please mention that acting like separated parents using their children as a game of ping pong is never sensible for anyone. And at the very least, encourage them to appreciate the need to talk together in order to move forward positively.

If you’d like support to unpick a communication issue you’re facing, I offer a focused on-to-one Communication Clinic, over Skype. Contact me to find out more.

Are your prices clear? Have you made it easy for your customers to see where they stand financially? Sometimes we lose sight of the obvious, don’t you think?

Why Do We Complicate Things?

A client of mine runs a training company. She has an enormous amount of experience and employs other trainers to deliver her content. Things were going well.

That is, until she began to lose business to her competitors and work was not coming in as usual. With a sinking feeling in her stomach, she called me and we talked it through at length. We compared the various business models, websites, marketing efforts, client portfolios, training topics and so on. There didn’t seem any obvious differences between her business and those of the competition.

So we looked at it from a different angle. I asked her to explain the evolution of her business. How had it developed? What did you do to expand?

It turns out that as the years had gone by, she had added new services and new ways of doing things. Progress, you would think, as she increasingly met the growing demands of her client base and target market. The problem was that her pricing structure had become opaque. There were layers and layers of combinations and corresponding fees. It was really difficult trying to work out the costs of anything.

Neither her clients nor prospective clients thought to tell her, they simply went elsewhere.

Once we had identified the problem, she simplified her fee structure and made clearer what she offers and how she delivers. She then used the opportunity to get back in touch with people to bring them up-to-date and work picked up.

Are your prices clear? Have you made it easy for your customers to see where they stand financially? Sometimes we lose sight of the obvious, don’t you think?

If you’d like support to ensure you haven’t lost sight of the obvious, I offer a focused on-to-one Communication Clinic, over Skype. Contact me to find out more.

What is intuition and how can it help at work?

A senior firefighter is watching his men enter an industrial building. There is a fire inside, but one of his men radios out to say that it’s contained and they have it under control.

All of a sudden, the senior firefighter shouted down the radio to his men “Get out, get out now!”. They were surprised “It’s OK, we’ve got it covered.” “That’s an order – get out now, fast!”.

As the last man ran out of the door, the building exploded.

The senior firefighter had saved the lives of everyone through what seemed like intuition.

But was it?

After much investigation, it was concluded that he unconsciously recognised the way the smoke was behaving as he had experienced the same circumstances years before when he was a junior firefighter. A building exploded then but just before the explosion the smoke had behaved in a specific way. It wasn’t registered as such at the time, but when trying to recall what had alerted him to the dangers of the most recent incident, he realised that somewhere deep in his unconscious, he had recognised that the smoke was behaving in exactly the same way as it had all those years ago, although he didn’t realise it at the time. He saved his men by remembering – below conscious awareness – the same subtle danger signs, a long-forgotten memory deep in his unconscious mind.

This story was reported on a TV documentary some time ago and I quote it in my latest book, “Your Brain is Boss”

In fact, I was recently talking about this to a business owner of a trendy advertising agency. He told me things had been going well, but just lately they were having problems with communicating with their clients. We spoke at length and it transpired that he didn’t have any older people working for him. He argued that the market changes rapidly, and the old ways of doing things were out of date, so hiring older people wasn’t appropriate for him.

It’s interesting isn’t it, that because technology changes at the speed of light, experience isn’t valued as much. It’s also interesting that he didn’t think of the so called soft skills that remain as valuable today as they have ever done. Soft skills such as problem solving using intuition, which is in fact subliminal processing based on implicit knowledge (unconscious).

Communication problems are the same now as they were years ago. Often the keys are transparency and listening to clients and moulding your propositions to them and their values. Having told the ad agency boss the firefighter story he decided to hire someone older with vast experience in the industry.

He reported back recently to say that it was working well.

When two people clash and it is so avoidable

When two people clash and it is so avoidable

Have you seen the birthday card with a couple of hard-of-hearing elderly people having a conversation? It goes something like this:

“It’s windy today”
“No, it’s Thursday”
“So am I, let’s have a cup of tea”

This is an amusing greetings card, but have you ever heard anyone at work having a similar conversation? No, not due to deafness, but due to lack of concentration because they are preoccupied with other tasks rather than listening properly. Especially these days with so many phones, tablets and computers competing for our attention.

I was aghast recently, listening to two people in the board room having a conversation that quickly became more and more heated. All because neither party gave their full attention to the other at the beginning of the conversation. It went something like this:

Person A: “I’m actually pretty good at having an open door policy. My teams know they can come into my office anytime to discuss issues”

Person B: “Are you saying that I don’t help my people the same way?”

Person B was distracted and took the comment as a criticism and misconstrued the meaning, a common mistake when we are preoccupied and stressed.

Person A: “I didn’t say that but now you come to mention it, I did hear someone in the corridor complain that they couldn’t get to see you”

Person A’s reply is defensive and counterattacks to try to gain some control.

And so, the heat began to rise. Nonsense, isn’t it? Misunderstandings and misinterpretations are quite frankly toxic and can create conflict with devastating effects on productivity, team work and collaboration as well as poor health due to anxiety and even spill over to poor customer service.

How might the board room conversation have gone?

Person A: “I’m actually pretty good at having an open door policy. My teams know they can come into my office anytime to discuss issues”

Person B: “Well done. How do you communicate that to your people, so that they don’t take advantage of your generosity?”

Person A will then feel flattered and a debate is opened for an honest discussion about an open door policy.

Virtually every conflict in the world is due to poor communication. Being constantly aware of what you are saying and giving people your full attention can contribute greatly to staff working together for the good of the company, whilst avoiding you having to navigate the treacherous waters of conflict.

Collaboration and Legacy

John Smith was a Chairman and CEO of an advertising company.  Married with 2 children he worked incredibly hard.  His family were used to him ‘never being around’, he beavered away so that he could afford a fine house, great cars and lots of travel. 

Often away on business, over the years he has built up friendships through his work.  So it comes as no surprise that he was invited to a birthday party whilst in New York.  He went along and met a lady who made him feel better than he had felt for a long time. 

He left his wife and family and started again with a new wife and had 2 more children.  He worked even harder because now he had a second family to support.  His new family became used to him ‘never being around’, so he kept beavering away so he could afford a fine house, great cars and lots of travel.

That is until he realised that NO ONE CARES about his house, cars and travel.  He was the only one who cared what others thought of him.  The sting was bitterly sharp as he thought of both his families, knowing deep down that although they enjoyed the trappings, the heart ache of separation temporary or permanent was misguided at best and often toxic. 

We are not meant to live in separation.  We are meant to live in collaboration with those we love and those we work with. 

John’s deep seated unhappiness was affecting his health and he was frightened he could die and leave behind a legacy of despair.  Legacy is an interesting thought isn’t it?  Have you thought what people will say about you when you have gone?  Have you thought what you would like people to think about you?  Have you thought about what your life means or will have meant?  These are some of the questions John and I discussed at length.   

John worked out what he wanted his legacy to be and he felt a weight lifting off his shoulders.  But that was just the beginning.  The next thing he did was to put a series of actions in place to secure the path to leaving that legacy, but in the meantime making the best of his life.

John is now a lot happier.  He has a new business working from home.  It doesn’t sound so grand does it?  But business is booming.  He has partnered with larger magazine distributors, collaboration being key.  He is able to immediately respond to phone calls and emails, commuting is a thing of the past so he has freed up a great deal of time to concentrate more effectively on what leads directly to revenue and has cut out extraneous expenses and superfluous meetings.  John has taken full responsibility and is no longer a victim of circumstances.  This is part of the jigsaw puzzle for him to achieve his legacy.

His second family are happier because he spends more time with them, his first family are happier because he is communicating with them better and his health has improved. 

Sometimes we forget that for the majority of people the main reason we work is to generate revenue to live a life we want to live.  This may involve considering what we want to leave behind when we pass away, it may not.  But it will certainly involve how we live and enjoy our loved ones.  Collaboration is becoming a keyword in our society and legacy is an interesting thought don’t you think? 

There Is No Need To Be A Psychologist, But You Do Need To Know What To Do

I hate to admit this, but I’m out of my depth. My boss expects me to handle my team on all levels, but two of them are so stressed I’m worried they may burn out. I haven’t told my boss because I respect their privacy and they haven’t actually told me how they feel. I can just see it. I want to help but I don’t know how.

I hear this more and more. There is an increasing trend in middle management being expected to be some kind of pseudo-psychologist and this is never a good idea. You need to leave psychology to the psychologists. But, as a responsible boss, you do need tools to help people at first and if things are bad, know who to refer them to.

Let’s take an extreme case study I was involved with recently. It is extreme, but has useful lessons for us all.

Wendy (name changed) called me in a dreadful panic. ‘I was carrying out appraisals, it was the end of the day and my last team member came into my office and sat down. She looked a bit down and I thought that was because she hadn’t been doing her job properly and she knew we had to talk about it.

But before I could say anything she started to tell me that she wanted to end her life. She was calm and went into detail about the different ways she had considered suicide. She swore me to secrecy. I knew this was wrong but I went into a panic. We don’t have an HR department and I had no one to talk to. So, I told her I would help her all I could. I sat with her during her shifts, helping her with her work, in fact I was doing her job for her. This has been going on for some weeks. But the other day I noticed that she seemed to act as if she had pulled the wool over my eyes. I feel terrible saying this, but I think she tricked me because she knew she was underperforming.

What should I do?

Wendy and I talked this through for half a day and we revealed underlying problems that could be worked on. There were two main issues. One was to help her manage this situation and the other was for her to recognise her own behaviour patterns so that this would never happen again. After all the resulting situation was untenable for her and her whole team.

The first point to make is that if anyone tells you they are considering ending their life, you are not qualified to judge if they are telling the truth or otherwise. You must give this person your full attention immediately. Talk to them, ask them if they have seen a doctor or psychologist, if not calmly suggest you think this is a good idea. Show them that you care and avoid saying things that could make them feel guilty, such as think how your family will feel, this sort of comment can make matters worse.

You must elevate this to someone more senior and focus on getting help.

If you haven’t got an HR department, I also advise contacting an external HR company, so that you follow correct procedures. With increasing mental health problems in workplace, all companies employing people should think through how these situations should be handled.

As far as working with Wendy about how she handled the situation, this is for next week’s Your Brain is Boss bulletin. If you’re not yet recieveing this fortnightly bulletin of neuroscience and business psychology tips and insights to enable you to increase productivity (whilst reducing stress), avoid conflict and improve communication – sign up below.


New Book – Your Brain is Boss

Your Brain is Boss

Why is it that some people enjoy greater success than you even though they seem to have less knowledge and experience?

Because they have learnt to channel their brain and behaviour and influence others.

The brain can often have a tendency to over-complicate matters. With Your Brain is Boss you too can take control of directing your brain and emotions.

Your Brain is Boss is a startlingly clear gem of a book brimming with ideas and tools that can help simplify your work and personal life so you can reach your goals. By reading this book you will be able to:

  • Control your emotions rather than have them controlling you.
  • Solve problems creatively and communicate your ideas effectively.
  • Be more influential and consequently more valuable in your workplace.
  • Become a wealthier, healthier, happier person who is capable of achieving and maintaining a leadership position.

Whatever stage you are at in your life or career, by understanding that your brain is boss and how to take charge, you will enhance your emotional, mental, physical and financial wellbeing.

Your Brain Is Boss offers fascinating insight into the psychology and science behind how business relationships work, and how to improve your own behaviour and that of your teams for greater effect. It;s packed with original examples and practical tips that are easy to implement. If you are ready to become truly influential in your market, this book is essential reading.Jo Haig CEO fds Director Services Ltd
Dr Lynda Shaw is THE expert when it comes to understanding how your brain influences what you think, feel and do. Knowing how your brain works will give you that critical edge in the work that you do and decisions that you make.Jane Gunn International Mediation and author of How To Beat Bedlam In The Boardroom And Boredom In The Bedroom

Available to Order Now

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"Your Brain is Boss" book by Dr Lynda Shaw

The Film: Inside Out

And Why It’s OK To Not Feel OK All The Time
Today the film Inside Out will be in our cinemas here in the UK.  An animated story of 5 emotions in the brain of a young teenager – Sadness, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Joy, all on a journey of conflict, challenges and success.
Why is this film important to me?  It’s completely in my area of expertise and I can’t wait to see how the makers of the film portray emotion. 
For years I have been talking about emotion and for years many have thought this is a pink fluffy topic that has no place in the real business world.  This is completely wrong.  Emotions influence all aspects of our behaviour most of the time, including business decisions, what we buy and why we are loyal to one brand and not another.

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Diaries Jammed Full Are Killing Us

Take a Deep Breath

A lady boarding the bus in front of you shows the bus driver a map and asks “Can you tell me if you are going to this place please?”
He thinks about it and kindly gives a full answer.
“OK, then can we have two tickets please?  Can I pay with a credit card?”
The driver says yes but the card doesn’t work.
“Sorry, let’s try this other one” as she fumbles in her purse.
This time it works.
“Can you tell us when to get off?”
“Sure” says the driver, smiling.
You are waiting behind these irritating people.  The bus is now late, which means you will miss the start of your meeting.
How do you feel?  Angry?  Agitated?  What if this happens on the next bus?  It’s enough to make you walk straight to a taxi rank, regardless of the additional expense.

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