You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family…or your work colleagues.
Thrown together through luck and circumstance, we spend at least half of our lives working alongside people, we otherwise might not have met.
Every workplace is a rich tapestry of individuals with different ideas, views and morals. So, like every dysfunctional family worth its salt, we find ourselves stuck with people we just don’t get along with.
When we don’t get along with people, we become stressed. It’s hard work. This person could be a line manager, a peer, a key stakeholder or a customer. Sometimes it’s just a manageable case of mild irritation. Or it can be much more serious, where the mere mention of a name leads to intense anxiety.
So, how can business leaders manage stress in the workplace so that it doesn’t affect bottom line?
Connection is key.
When we have a connection with another person, we feel safe. We feel brave enough to have those ‘difficult’ conversations. Trust is built over time and we become empowered. Unless business leaders role model this and create an environment in which others can do the same, stress will continue to be a problem.
We cannot underestimate the power of connection. Professor Mathew Lieberman (UCLA Dept of Psychology, Psychiatry and Bio-behavioural sciences) believes that our need to connect is as basic as our need for food, water and shelter. We all recognise that without food, water and shelter, we will die. But do we really believe that without social connection we will fail to thrive?
Lack of connection leads to emotional breakdown. Harry Harlow’s psychological experiments on monkeys through the 1950’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s are just one example. Newborn monkeys taken away from their mothers at birth and put into isolation were driven insane within a few days. They rocked and clutched at themselves, ripping out their hair and biting their own skin. When removed from isolation they were too traumatised to interact with other monkeys. Some were so shocked and depressed that they starved themselves to death.
We remember too the terrible images of the Romanian orphanages after the fall of Ceaușescu. Romania’s neglected children represented a tragic experiment in what happens when we’re denied the connection of normal human relationships. One of the key findings was that these children had extremely high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, compared to their parent raised peers, years after they had been adopted.
We’re hard-wired to connect.
We’re born, pre-programmed to form attachments that we need to survive. So when we don’t connect, it hurts. As children we remember that crushing feeling of rejection when another child didn’t want to play with us. And we didn’t mind letting the World know how upset we were with tears and tantrums. As adults, it still hurts. But tears and tantrums don’t tend to go down too well in the office. However, we still need to express our pain openly, or else how can we move through it and resolve it?
When we don’t connect, it literally hurts. The area that lights up in the brain when we experience physical pain – the anterior cingulate – is the exact same area that lights up when we feel social pain. Chronic physical pain is exhausting. The same is true for chronic social pain. It stands to reason then, that a disconnected workforce is an exhausted, stressed and often, burnt out one.
A disconnected team needs strong leadership.
Without this an organisation can become ‘stuck’. Both absenteeism and presenteeism grows and the rot sets in on an unproductive and ineffective workforce. Unless leaders recognise the importance of connection, a company’s true potential can never be realised.