Thursday, March 26, 2009

Leadership Decisions Under Stress

It's book week this week at Great Leadership.

Here's a guest post by Sylvia Lafair. She has an interesting combination of jobs - executive coach, author, and family therapist. Makes sense... I know that's how I feel on some days.

I'm certain you've all had the experience of looking in the mirror and recognizing you have your father's chin or grandmother's blue eyes. We also inherit our ancestors' ways of thinking and behaving. Thus, our decisions are less totally "ours" than they are a collection of threads from our family tapestry. Thanks to advances in neuroscience we know that our unconscious emotions occupy a different region of the brain than our conscious perceptions and can exert a powerful influence on our preferences and actions. The trigger is usually stress!

When a colleague tries to one-up and makes you feel stupid, suddenly you are responding to your older brother who always put you down. When the CFO demands that costs be cut suddenly he is your single mom who could never make ends meet. Reactions happen in milliseconds. As the internal anxiety gauge goes up, your ability to respond in a mature manner goes down. I am seeing more and more fear, anger, and defensiveness in offices as the current economy puts stress at a recent all time high. Awareness that an old pattern is activated offers options for deactivation. However, if it stays underground I can guarantee it will be an overreaction in the present situation.

Here is an example that happened last fall when the economic meltdown was gaining momentum. I was called in to coach the CEO of a company in a sector of the economy not directly in the line of fire, with good financials and high morale. Then, something turned this likable CEO into an uptight autocrat watching every nickel. His team was suffering. He kept me at arm’s length, saying he felt like he had been sent to the principal’s office. I must say, that kind of response is not unusual and it took patience to hang in there. One evening he called me at home. He sounded on the verge of tears which was way out of character. He had been watching some mindless sitcom on TV and an ad came on that showed a little girl named Anna playing with a dollhouse when her mother says they have to leave. Then a voice in the background talks about foreclosure. At that moment he started to feel ill. While we talked and he was finally able to connect the dots and his tense behavior began to make sense. When he was five years old his father lost his job and the family lost their home. Heaving a deep sigh he realized that his overzealous need to watch the money, to be a rescuer, was more his remembered pattern from the past than the reality of the present. Once understood he could make the necessary adjustments and soon returned to a more appropriate manner of relating and leading.

We are reinventing ourselves on a daily basis. There is no rule book on how to respond to the fear and uncertainty in today's workplace. There is the exhaustion of having to do more with less in every business and the heightened stress that ensues. There is also the sadness that correlates with layoffs. It impacts both sides of the equation. Those losing jobs are often good, competent workers who feel like "victims" of these times and those who stay often harbor the guilt of survivorship and become over invested "martyrs" to makeup for their discomfort. I believe it is extremely important to become aware of patterns and find more effective ways of responding than falling into the black hole of old, worn-out behaviors from the past.

Images from the Great Depression are all over the media and most of us know stories of how our families coped during those tough times. If we don't know, this is a good time to probe and find out. We need to talk about this and learn from it rather than do pattern repetition. Talking with colleagues and exploring how we are all getting triggered by each other is one important way of keeping our patterns under control. As long as they are visible they are workable. If they stay in the darkness of the invisible they are in control. Learning about patterns and methods for pattern transformation is the work of right now. It is the bottom line work of the business world to understand the interactive realm of relationships at the core of every office everywhere. We all really need to get a handle on the fact that it is no longer survival of the fittest; it is a time for all of us to survive and be fit!

At the intersection of the personal growth and leadership genres, this important new book, DON’T BRING IT TO WORK: Breaking the Family Patterns that Limit Success (Jossey-Bass; Publication Date: March 20, 2009; $24.95 hardcover) attempts to resolve workplace conflicts by showing how to go to their root – revealing destructive patterns that were formed in childhood by interactions with family members. Author, executive coach and family therapist Sylvia Lafair separates out the confusing emotions of the workplace and helps managers and executives mine their own family history for clues that lead to breakthroughs.

Sylvia Lafair, Ph.D., is an expert on relationships, workplace behavior and leadership building. Lafair is President of Creative Energy Options (CEO), a consulting firm with retreat centers in Pennsylvania and New Mexico and a client list that includes Microsoft, AstraZeneca, Aveda Salons and Novartis, to name a few. Sylvia can be reached at or by visiting her website


BomiM said...

The current economy puts stress at a recent all time high 'cause of just two overwhelming factors. At the core of this crisis is too little confidence and too much of uncertainty. And the baby steps for every adult is to make every possible move in building back this confidence with communicate honestly, communicate sincerely and communicate ... in my dictionary there isn't a term called "over communicate" as much as we desire to reduce this uncertainty.


Scott Peters said...

Stress is a state of mind that leads to physiological response.

Thanks for the article. Another book that may be beneficial to those looking for alternative leadership lessons:

Dropping Almonds by Bach Anon

located online at most major book distributors.

click my name and you'll be taken to the dropping almonds website.