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ArticlesLeadership, competitiveness and best practices on business management

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Management TipsPractical tools to enhance management and leadership skills

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By The Numbers

Workplace Survey, Findings

1.Workers are struggling to work effectively. 

When focus is compromised in pursuit of Collaboration, neither works well.

2. Effective workplaces balance focus and collaboration. 

Workplaces designed to enable collaboration without sacrificing employees’ ability to focus are more successful.

3. Choice drives performance and innovation. 

Employers who provide a spectrum of choices for when and where to work are seen as more innovative and have higher-performing employees.

 

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MANAGING YOUR STRESS PRODUCTIVELY

Recently, a developmental psychologist cited scientific evidence showing that IQ was one of the most significant predictors of emotional resiliency in children. The same pattern has also long been seen in the military, where it has been conclusively shown that higher-IQ soldiers show fewer signs of long-terms post-traumatic stress.

Heightened anxiety has long been shown to dramatically impair people's ability to think. It affects basic functions such as short-term memory and processing of simple information, as well as more complex thinking, where anxiety can aggressively interfere with the ability to differentiate between important and irrelevant tasks. In today's business environment of unrelenting pressure, aspiring leaders must learn how to confront heightened levels of urgency without allowing the accompanying mental agitation to be disruptive.

 

About six years ago, Justin Menkes, an expert in the field of C-suite talent evaluation, interviewed "Ollie," the CEO of a consumer products company. He had been hired to evaluate Ollie by his parent company because his company had been doing poorly. In fact, it was the worst-performing brand in the parent conglomerate's portfolio. Menkes had presented Ollie with a hypothetical crisis that threatened the survival of his business, and was asking him to evaluate data, along with suggestions from colleagues and his board of directors, and arrive at a sound conclusion about what to do.

Just a few minutes before, when Menkes had asked Ollie about his history with the company, he had confidently articulated the direction in which he was taking the business. Now he was struggling to offer even the most basic sense of how to proceed in a hypothetical, but very plausible, real-world crisis. When Menkes would ask Ollie a question, he would offer an answer that was virtually incoherent. Menkes recognized the shift in eye movements, the slight rise in room temperature, and the slight increase in human body odor. These are all the physical responses of someone experiencing an adrenaline flood that is overloading their higher-order functions. When this happens, a person is prepared to run, not think.

According to Menkes,  Ollie is not alone. A full 20% of the executives he interview — senior leaders of some of the world's leading businesses — become almost incoherent during similar processes, unable to provide answers to more than one-third of the questions posed. Human beings are not naturally wired to engage in complex problem solving when they are under pressure, but it can be learned.

Aspiring leaders must be taught how to manage their stress in such a way that it actually increases their focus and clarity. They need to gain experience in stressful situations where they get an elevated — but not overwhelming — sense of adrenaline and are set up for success. Confidence under pressure can be built like a railroad track in the brain through exposure to repeated experiences over time.

This capacity can be developed in many ways. One simple exercise involves memorizing something, be it a poem or the US’ 50 states, and then reciting it before friends at a dinner party, while encouraging them to taunt you if you make mistakes. At first, you are more likely to have missteps in this context. Eventually, you will find that you can do the exercise faster, with more accuracy, in front of an audience than when you do it by yourself. Toastmasters uses the same concept, teaching people to do something they often fear — public speaking — by first exposing them repeatedly to speaking in a small, supportive environment before putting them in front of larger and larger groups.

Mentors can also nurture this quality in future leaders by creating similar experiences. For instance, if your next-in-line is slated to present before the board, don't let him do so without preparation. Have him present first in front of a few colleagues, then at the Monday morning meeting, then before the management team, all before they present in the higher-pressure environment of the boardroom.

Once an executive learns how to manage adrenaline without panic, he or she can grow confident that the sensations that stress induces will not lead to collapse. While it is a noisemaker in the untrained mind, when channeled properly adrenaline can help people accomplish things that they never would have imagined possible. The ability to make adrenaline a friend is a necessity for executives in today's environment of ongoing duress. Not surprisingly, it's also a hallmark of the world's best CEOs.