In the Flow, or in the Frazzle? Hitting Your Stride with Stress

Stress.  Stress!  Stress@*&#!  It is an ever-increasing part of our discourse, and the very word has begun to be the lexicological equivalent of such other negatively super-charged words as ‘cancer’ and ‘politician’.  Yet we all recognize that some degree of stress can be energizing.  The problem is that for many leaders, stress has become too intrusive, too consistent, and too disorienting to be energizing.

A little science helps to understand what happens to our responses as stress increases.  Way back in 1908 scientists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson experimented with the impact of introducing varying intensities and frequencies of stress on performance of tasks.  What became known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law demonstrated that increased stimulation (stressors) can improve performance – up to a certain point.  A certain level of stress releases the brain chemicals adrenaline and cortisol that enhance motivation and focus on the task at hand, and even some, like dopamine, that actually enhance brain function and feelings of satisfaction.  After that point, however, the concentration of stress hormones in the system creates negative effects.  Continue reading

4 Leadership Paradigm Shifts: Part 4 – Cash to Contribution

Employee MotivationHere’s a paradigm that actually has not shifted over time: what motivates people to work their best is not money.  The paradigm that is shifting is leaders’ recognition of this fact, and how they are choosing to motivate and engage their workforce.

Despite decades of data showing that cash is not king in engaging people to do their best at work, compensation systems have been the first place leaders have traditionally looked to either reward or signal displeasure with employee performance.  People who have studied compensation reward systems, like author Daniel Pink (Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us), have learned that money is a motivator only up to the point that we have a reasonable amount.  After that, more money is no longer a motivating force.  Commission-based sales organizations know this.  Salespeople will drive for more sales until they are making what they see as a comfortable living.  After that, even increasing commission rates don’t produce more sales. Continue reading

4 Leadership Paradigm Shifts: Part 3 – Boundaries to Boundless

In our work world, we use a lot of language and symbols around boundaries: ‘working in silos’; ‘work-life balance’ (as though there’s a division between the two); cubie walls and office doors.  In a similar way, cultural norms – the unspoken but well-followed rules of living in a workplace – are often disproportionately tilted toward setting boundaries.  There are cultural boundaries about who gets to make decisions, what business strategies are acceptable, what ideas can come from what areas of the company.  In large, time-honored organizations, the boundaries can get pretty thick.  New people entering these organizations hit not only glass ceilings, but also glass walls.  Yet the people living inside the organization no longer see that there’s a barrier; they live comfortably inside their glass houses, mistaking seeing the horizon as moving toward it. Continue reading

4 Leadership Paradigm Shifts: Part 2 – Competition to Collaboration

Sports and wars have long provided analogies present in the workplace: ‘take the ball and run with it’; ‘kill the competitors’; ‘beat back objections’.  The upside is that those analogies are easily understood.  Wars have been a part of human interaction from time immemorial, and sports were probably not far behind.  But they also create an ingrained assumption about the ‘rightness’ of the practice of competitive human interaction.

In more recent times, we’ve added a patina of scientific Darwinism to support competition as a guiding force in the workplace, such as the teachings of Andrew Carnegie: “And while the law of competition may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department.”  And even today, common wisdom in blogs and management books still reflects an understanding of competition as a win-lose business proposition, as evidenced by this quote from a recent blog: “Dealing with competition in the business world is really no different than dealing with enemies on the battlefield or competitors on the athletic field…you either win or lose based upon your state of preparedness, perspective, interpretation and execution.” Continue reading

4 Leadership Paradigm Shifts: Part 1 – Control to Connection

Leadership is, by definition, not a solitary venture.  Leaders must create relationships in order to lead.  There have been a lot of assumptions built over time, dating back at least to feudal days, about the nature of those relationships, and many assumptions have centered around the question of control: landowner vs. indentured worker; management vs. union.  The assumption that has been in place for centuries is that control is an advantage to retain.  But the emerging assumption turns upside down the assumption that control is even necessary.  The paradigm shift is from leadership relationships of control to ones built on carefully cultivated connections. Continue reading