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There is no chance, no destiny, no fate, that can circumvent or hinder or control the firm resolve of a determined soul.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox
I’ve never been one to make a long list of New Year’s resolutions. Mainly because it is so easy to fail at them – the lofty ideals we set at this time of the year; when we are looking back at the year that was and what we want to be different somehow in the coming year. The only resolution I made in the past (which I have now stopped making) was that I would be ‘serene’ the next year. I don’t think that is ever going to happen completely, but bit by bit I am learning. Honestly. Delegation appears to be key.
F0r 2016 I am quietly determined not to read the comments on public facebook pages or on twitter, and participate in the discussions. I really don't need to participate in the outrage industry social media seems to breed these days and correcting grammar and spelling on the internet has lost its sparkle.
Resolutions are very different to goals made with resolve. Goals can be broken down into achievable parts. ‘I’m going to lose 12 kilos’ as a resolution often fails at the first hurdle when one hypothetically wakes up with a hangover on New Years’ Day unable to get off the couch to get any exercise. Yet having a goal of losing 12 kilos in the next 12 months can be broken down into losing 1 kilo a month, by exercising 5 days out of seven, by reducing your calorie intake so that output is higher than input and so on. Possibly even giving up wine, if one was so inclined. And every month that goes by and you see your goal reached is a mental tick in the box that you’re doing well.
And while resolutions come and go; resolve is easier to maintain, especially when you set yourself a goal and have a clear picture in your head, and written down on a piece of paper of what you want to achieve and how you are going to achieve it.
So think about your career and life goals for 2016, and how you are going to measure your success at achieving them. Do you want a new client? What steps do you need to take to win that work? Then keep it? Do you want to achieve a certain financial target? What changes do you need to make to ensure that happens? Do you want to move into a different area? To whom do you need to speak? Do you want start your own business? Where are you going to start and who can help you? Do you want to get a promotion? How do you find out about the criteria and who makes the decision? Do you need to make more time for yourself? What has to change to make that happen? Do you need to give up control of some things? What are you going to give up doing that has been distracting you?
Each of these questions is a whole blog post on its own, (especially the last two) but I want you to think about one important thing where we can all maintain resolve.
Is there a difficult conversation you have been putting off having with someone, whether it be a supervisor, colleague or junior employee? If you are doing reruns in your head of what you could have, should have or would have said to someone, that is a sign that a difficult conversation needs to be had. Plan it, frame it, and have it. Nothing changes unless you have those conversations – in particular the enormous space those thoughts are taking up in your head, and the energy expended in thinking about them. If you are a manager of people one of the most important skills you can learn is how to have a difficult conversation. I have yet to meet anyone who has dreaded a difficult conversation at work, but who has regretted finally having it, regardless of the outcome.
But back to the concept of serenity. I will never be Princess Grace (assuming she was serene and not just faking it). And most people with busy lives will have difficulty achieving serenity. I am however learning to be mindful. And so can you. I am day by day learning to focus my attention, to pause between tasks, and take a deep breath before moving on to the next one. And so can you. Trust me, it works.
And in 2016, let’s all practice gratitude and kindness regularly ( have written about gratitude previously), and be the person people look forward to seeing when they come to work. Gratitude and kindness, however small the act, are never wasted.
Happy New Year everyone any may your 2016 be successful, whatever success means for you.
It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver
- Mahatma Ghandi
A recent study by Dr Rebecca Michalak of PsychSafe, has shown that the legal profession has the lowest levels of health and well being of white collar workers, and that they are also the highest users of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. In fact substance abuse is approximately double that of other white collar workers. You can read a summary of her report here.
It is no secret that the very nature of the legal profession is inherently stressful — long working hours, the tyranny of time sheets and budgets, demanding clients, competition, and a pessimistic view of the world as a result of always having to look for the worst case scenario and plan for it, all contribute to stress, which over a long period of time cam lead to many health problems. These health problems include many physical illnesses and also mental illnesses.
Sadly, substance abuse can be a by-product of mental health issues as those suffering from it attempt to self medicate, rather than admit to it.
Dr Michalak said that rather than teaching resilience, to cope with stress, law firms needed to take proactive, preventative measures around the systemic failings and work environments to prevent it happening at all.
I agree with Dr Michalak - at present the legal profession has almost double the rate of mental health diagnoses as the general population. This is a systemic issue not a personal one.
Disturbingly, her report also found that:
Lawyers were also more likely than other professionals to be exposed to toxic behaviour in the workplace, including verbal abuse, mistreatment, bullying, competition, and destabilisation from colleagues, as well as sexual harassment
The ripple effect of poor work practices and environments is large, and getting bigger.
What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?
- Jean Jacques Rousseau
Friday 13 November 2015 is World Kindness Day. This day is part of a World Kindness Movement (WKM) that started at a conference in Japan almost 20 years ago.
The mission of the WKM is "to inspire individuals towards greater kindness and to connect nations to create a kinder world".
This is the WKM on a macro level - changing the world. We can, however, all make a difference by practising kindness every day and on this day, consciously practising kindess in the workplace. Imagine if we could change the world by changing one workplace at a time.
Kindness does not have to be a grand gesture. Nor does is have to cost money. Kindness can be a small gesture, genuinely made. Some of the simplest acts of kindness in the workplace are:
- holding a door open
- offering to make someone a cup of tea
- answering someone's phone and taking a message
- offering to get extra materials from the stationery room
- keeping the lift doors open when you see someone rushing to catch the lift
- remembering colleague's birthdays and acknowledging them
- taking an interest in peoples' interests
- showing genuine empathy to someone who is upset
Empathy is one of the best character traits to have - it makes the practice of kindness easy. And authentic. Practising kindness because you 'have to' is emotionally exhausting. Authenticity is essential.
The really good news about kindness, however is twofold. First, is that is is contagious. We take our cues from other people. When we witness or experience someone showing us kindness, we experience something called moral elevation - an emotion we experience after witnessing an act of kindness, compassion, understanding or forgiveness. We are more likely to be kind and helpful ourselves in that state. If leaders show kindness, their employees are also more likely to do so.
Secondly, practising kindness gives another person the opportunity to express gratitude, a very underrated virtue. In turn, having someone say 'thank you' gives us a good feeling and also increases the well being of the person expressing it.
When you think about it, kindness creates a giant warm circle of happiness. What's not to like?
Don't let today's disappointment cast a shadow over tomorrow's dream
Everyone faces disappointments in their careers. It is a rare and lucky person who doesn’t. It could be not getting a job you really want, or a promotion, or pay rise. Other than complaining endlessly to the immense irritation of others, how do you, or should you, deal with disappointments?
A friend delated the story of a work colleague who did not get promoted when she thought she should have been - she was, to say the least, very disappointed. And she let everyone know. For months. It started just to annoy everyone who, while sympathetic, were only sympathetic to a point.
While it is certainly important to acknowledge your disappointments and not just ignore them, you can make a choice. The answer lies in learning constructive ways to acknowledge disappointments and move on. Learning to deal with your disappointments constructively can make you a stronger person in the end and the envy of others, who will see you as a positive role model.
One of the first things you will need to do in learning to deal with disappointment is to recognize your old coping mechanisms, and create new ones. Everyone has them – is it overeating, having too much to drink, weeping uncontrollably, getting angry at the world, withdrawing from friends and family? If you have a tendency to equate every disappointment as a failure, this will trigger your stress response and make you respond emotionally. Failure is an event, not you. Reframe your thinking to think of this temporary disappointment as a blip, not a failure on your part.
And just as you can reframe your thinking about failure you can reframe your thinking about success. What does success look like to YOU, not what newspapers or industry magazines or Who magazine subliminally tell you what success is. Reframe your thoughts from what failure is to what success looks like – TO YOU.
Failure is a subjective term. So is success. Some of the most outwardly successful people are miserable. If you have very rigid ideas of what it means to succeed, you will often feel disappointed, particularly if you base your idea of success on what is happening to other people.
Acceptance is important – practising acceptance for things you can’t control. Sometimes you have to say 'it is what it is'– not what it could be or even should be.
You can honestly express the emotions that you are experiencing. This is about how you feel about the situation, not about other people. So don’t disparage other people to make yourself feel better. Articulate your feelings without attacking or putting others down. In the example above, dismissing the ability of someone who DID get promoted is likely to portray you as bitter and immature and stop you focussing on what you can do to improve the situation.
You can also accept that this is not personal. It may not be about you and you are not the only person who ever experiences disappointment in their careers.
What are the positives or opportunities? Find opportunity in adversity- there will always be one. In the example above, the person who missed out could get some feedback about what she has to do to make it happen, and have somone actively manage her career and promotion.
Put things into perspective – even the tiniest of disappointments can seem huge at the time. Once you have felt or expressed the disappointment take a moment to step back and look at the larger picture – how much is this going to have an effect on you in the future?
For example, follow the 10/10/10/10 rule:
- Will this matter in 10 minutes – probably
- Will this matter in 10 days – possibly
- Will this matter in 10 months – probably not
- Will this matter in 10 years – highly unlikely
What can you learn? – did you have unrealistic expectations? Is there something you can do differently or better next time? All disappointments invariably somehting you can learn from them.
And remember - hard work, including on yourself, is never a waste of time.
The greatest weapon we have against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another
- William Jones
Human beings have come to accept that stress is a part of everyday life. Over time prolonged stress can lead to serious health problems. So if we can't reduce the amount of stress in our lives we had better learn to manage our response to stress. And this is where thinking like a zebra comes into play.
Zebras spend most of their time wandering around, eating, drinking at waterholes, mating and sleeping. Most of their lives are spent being pretty relaxed.
But every now and then, for about 1-2 minutes they experience sheer terror. A lion appears and picks out a potential meal from the herd and the chase is on. The response of the zebras is an automatic one. Their brains sense danger. They run. As fast as they can. Their hearts are racing and limbs pounding –their bodies are automatically responding to the threat. They are either eaten, or they survive.
But if they survive, they go back to what they were doing before. The immediate danger is over, and their bodies, and brains return to their normal relaxed state.
Zebras would be astounded to know that human beings experience the stress response as frequently as we do.
There is an excellent short documentary explaining the stress response by Professor Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University. He has spent over three decades studying the stress response in humans and animals, and he has also written a book called 'Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers'. Interestingly baboons have very high levels of stress in the animal kingdom, having nine hours a day to torment each other after eating and sleeping. The similarities to modern workplaces should not be dismissed.
So what is the stress response?
In humans, our immediate stress response is similar to that of the animal world, and our brains and bodies are hard wired to react to threats and perceived threats. I use the word ‘perceived’ because over time our learned responses to certain stressful situations become embedded in our neural pathways and part and parcel of everyday life. They are memories that become activated by that particular stressful situation. We have taught our brains to find stress in the unlikeliest of places, and react accordingly. Over and over again. For some people it is like Groundhog Day.
When we are facing stress, our bodies respond automatically by activating the nervous system and releasing the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause physical changes which help us react quickly - the ‘flight or fight’ (and sometimes 'freeze' response.
Our heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, metabolic rate and muscle tension all increase. Glucose that has been stored in the liver is released, and the immune system is suppressed. This is the body’s way of protecting us, by stopping things it doesn’t need to do right in that moment, and increasing activity that will help - help us deal with something that could kill us, not a performance review for example.
For example if a car cuts in front of us in the traffic, we put the foot on the brake without even consciously thinking about it. We should then resume normal transmission and go back to our relaxed state
But then sometimes we yell and scream and shake our fists and flip the bird when there is no need to…
HOW CAN YOU MANAGE YOUR STRESS RESPONSE?
There are some simple tricks to use to manage your own stress response.
Recognise the triggers
First of all, recognise what the triggers are for you – is it public speaking, multiple deadlines, over commitment, negative responses, negative feedback, traffic, public transport, fear of failure? Imagine if it is all of these things and they happen on the same day? Find out what you respond to and and decide to teach your brain to respond differently.
Try and identify THREE things that cause you to become stressed and respond inappropriately.
Mary, for example, felt her stress response activated when her supervisor Martin became inappropriately angry when something at work went wrong. She would immediately become angry herself, assuming he was finding fault with her. Her heart rate would go up, she would feel a bit light headed. The two of them would argue, he would talk over the top of her, she became defensive and more angry until they were shouting. Mary had to learn to completely change the way she thought about and responded to this situation, take a deep breath when blamed, and respond calmly, and quietly. In doing so, she not only managed her stress response, she helped Martin manage his as well.
Practice acceptance for things you can’t control
When we are stressed, little things often set us off because we already have cortisol and adrenaline coursing through our systems. There are many stressful things that happen in the day over which we have no control – for example, planes being late, traffic hold ups, milk being spilled (literally). There is no point reacting to those things we can’t change. We need to practice saying ‘it is what it is’, deal with it and move on. So for example you are on your way to an important meeting and there is a traffic accident and you are being held up. can you change the fact that the lanes are blocked ahead? No. Is having a racing heart and sweaty palms an appropriate response? No. Call ahead, explain the situation, and sit back and breathe deeply. It may be the best way to utilise that 10 minutes rather than shouting and banging your fists on the dashboard.
One important thing about things you can't control - you can’t control other people’s reactions but you can control your own.
I am not talking about cardio exercise here. If your heart rate is up just move to match what is happening in your body. Remember that adrenaline is running through your body – so for example just before a presentation, an exam or any event you know is causing you stress and your heart rate to increase – move around, walk up the stairs. This will send the message to your brain that you are heeding its warning, and in turn your brain will stop or at least reduce the stress response.
Listen to how you talk to yourself. Are you telling yourself you’re a failure, this always happens, anticipating the worst etc?
Ask yourself what is the worst that can happen? If you can handle that unlikely event then anything less than that is manageable. Once you've asked yourself about the worst, ask the question you really need to ask yourself - what is the BEST thing that could happen? I
f you are telling yourself ‘I am such a failure', reframe your thoughts. Turn the negative thoughts around into something less negative even if it can’t be positive.
For example, ‘this is going to be terrible’ becomes not ‘this is going to be great’ but ‘this is going to be tough, but I know I can get through it’.
Remember the quote above - the greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.
Next time you are feeling stressed and anxious try smiling. Take a deep breath and smile. Just smiling again sends a message to your brain that you are not freaking out, and the brain will respond accordingly.
Recognise fear of failure - and get over it
For our ancestors, failure could mean the difference between life and death, so failure was a threat. Our brains function the same way today. Failure and success are drummed into us from the time we start school, sometimes earlier. We go from a fairly carefree life of writing and drawing how we want and meandering around to having to draw between the lines and walk in lines. We grow up looking first for stamps and stickers, then for other signs of our success, and anyone else's success diminishes our own.
I recently read 'Wired for Life' by Martina Sheehan and Susan Pearse and it is an eye opening book. In it the authors look at many different fears we have and have this to say about fear of failure:
The shape of the threats that face you in the modern world are very different. Failing at a job can be processed as a threat to status. ..and the threat response does not wait to see if this materialises, the threat response is activated as soon as your mind starts visualising them
If you live with fear of failure, your brain is constantly on the lookout for ways in which that might happen and responds accordingly. So fear of failure, in whatever form, activates the stress response. Remind yourself of your many successes, take the risk you need to take, and celebrate a job well done when it is over - even if it is just facing something you were afraid of.
A wise person once told me that ‘failure is an event not a person’
There are whole books written on mindfulness so I won’t go into it in any detail here but it works. Really. It works. It is about teaching our brains to focus on the here and now, to be in the present. It allows us to focus on what our senses are telling us, and to calm our minds.
Pausing is, for me, mini mindfulness. and is very effective for dealing with day to day stress. I first learned about the concept of 'The Pause' at a seminar run by The Mind Gardeners and if you ever get a chance to go to one of their workshops I can highly recommend it. The Pause involves pausing, taking a breath before moving from one task to another. It allows you to bring your attention to the next task and to leave any stress from your previous task behind.
So for example moving from studying one task to another, moving from one client to another, hang up the phone or put down your pen, pause, take a deep breath and then move on to the next thing.
If you do this 10 times during the course of the day it will take approximately 1 minute, which is a worthwhile investment in order to manage your stress response.
You may have noticed a common theme in all of these tips - and that is breathing.
Of all the things that occur automatically when the stress response is activated( increased heart beat, blood flow, blood pressure, breathing) there is only one that we can control - our breathing
By slowing down our breathing, we can change the messages the body is sending to the brain and thereby change the way we respond.
So if you slow your breathing down, by deliberately taking long slow deep (i.e. through the diaphragm) breaths, your heart rate will slow down and your brain gets the message that the threat is decreasing.
Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.
The most important aspect of managing our stress response is that in teaching yourselves a new way to respond you will be teaching others, unconsciously, by modelling, to manage their stress response as well.