Are you ever stressed at work?
That was a trick question. We are all stressed at work, in ways so fundamental that we do not even recognise them.
Work is a deeply unnatural social environment. People are actually very good at coming together to help each other to achieve a common purpose. When this is a voluntary process, the natural stresses and strains that are involved in getting on with a lot of other people are dealt with by a few million years’ worth of evolution of the subtle social behaviours that enabled our ancestors to do exactly that: to form effective, and quite large, social groups.
But when it is an artificial process – when, for example, people at work are introduced to a large group of strangers and told that these strangers are now their ‘colleagues’ and that one particular person is now their ‘boss’, then funny stuff happens in our brains.
A question of life or death
The real problem is that our brains perceive these social experiences at exactly the same level of threat as life-and-death situations.These social behaviours are driven by the instinctive drive to minimize threat and maximize reward. Our brains take them very seriously indeed.
David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and editor of NeuroLeadership Journal, highlights some of the everyday ways in which these social behaviours are triggered in work environments.
Status, for example, is a major issue for us humans. Being given advice, let alone an instruction, triggers a threat to our perceived social status. “In most people,” Black writes, “the question ‘can I offer you some feedback?’ generates a similar response to hearing fast footsteps behind you at night.”
This is amusing (well, it makes me laugh), but Black is deadly serious.These social experiences use the same brain networks that we use for our primary survival needs; a threat to these social needs is seen in exactly the same way as a threat to our survival.
When we feel threatened at the workplace, even in a social sense, oxygen and glucose are diverted from our higher cognitive functions – the brain’s prefrontal cortex. Our brains hunker down into a defensive mode, exploring known routes to survival at the expense of both linear, conscious thought-processing (“I’m struggling to get this”) and non-linear jumps of creativity (“I’m just not having any good ideas”).
Have you noticed that you suddenly feel stupid when you sense that your boss is angry with you?
Have you noticed how teams that are stressed, anxious and harassed are not the ones saying, ‘We’ve had some great ideas – we’re really cooking today!’?
Random socialising and the macho mystique of managers
The workplace is a complex environment. Bizarrely, many organisations actively discourage the kind of normal, apparently pointless socialising that slowly lets us make sense of that environment: random encounters in corridors and common areas; talking to people we don’t know over a sandwich; doing something non-work-related with colleagues (possibly – gasp! – even in office hours).
And most organisations devote a lot of time to creating a macho mystique around those mysterious ‘managers’ who are suddenly given a god-like right to pass judgement on their previous colleagues, thereby creating a massive status stress attack.
We need fewer managers and more natural leaders. We need less hierarchy and more self-organisation.
The last thing we need in the creative environment that every modern workplace needs to be is status stress – but most organisations devote a great deal of time and effort into generating a wide variety of stresses.
I’ll bet they are also complaining that the organisation isn’t innovative enough.