Nick Petrie met Derek Roger 15 years ago, when he was in his 20s and struggling with a recurrence of cancer. Roger’s work on resilience — and practical steps to take to live without stress — had a profound impact on Nick, and the two have been friends and colleagues ever since.
Their new book, Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success, combines decades of research about why some people are more vulnerable to stress than others with the leadership lens Nick brings as a CCL faculty member and as a speaker and trainer of resilience programs for leaders and companies.
Below is an excerpt from the book that introduces the idea of rumination as the cause of stress and addresses a leader’s role in creating a stress-free workplace.
Nearly every day you’ll hear someone complain that they’re stressed — about their job, their boss, their partner, their children. We’ve become conditioned to thinking that my stress is caused by other people and events, but think for a moment: can you get rid of all of these people and events from your life? You can’t, and that makes stress a constant feature. You’ve also made yourself a victim, with your unhappiness dictated entirely by others.
This is the basic idea of managing stress: that it is a part of life that you have to learn to control and cope with—but, what if this approach is a mistake? In this book we’ll show you that it is indeed just a myth: stress isn’t something you have to learn to live with. You can be completely free of it.
You’re probably thinking you’ve heard all this before. Conventional stress management has been around for a long time, and has made no difference at all. The square wheel of stress has been reinvented endlessly, but if you look more closely, the reason it doesn’t work is because it is based on fundamentally wrong principles. What is needed is not just another relaxation technique, but a whole new way of defining stress: a shift in the paradigm of what we think stress is. This is not yet another book about stress and how to manage it. Instead our emphasis is on resilience. We don’t mean people who get stressed but bounce back more quickly than others. To be truly resilient, what’s required is a shift in your mindset, so that you can see stress for what it is and choose not to become involved in it.
Do you think a bit of stress is good for you? When we put this question to our training audiences, just about everyone puts their hand up. We then ask, how do you actually feel when you’re stressed? The answer is usually some form of misery, which couldn’t possibly be good for you. How many people tell their loved ones what a wonderful day they had because they were so stressed? When you define it properly, stress is never good for you. In fact, all you get from it is a probably shorter and definitely more miserable life. It could never be your friend.
When we put these questions to people, there are always a few who say that stress energizes and motivates them, but they’re not talking about stress at all. The confusion is a result of drawing a false distinction between so-called good and bad stress. Instead, we’ll be distinguishing between pressure and stress. This is not just wordplay. Pressure is defined as a demand to perform. The demand might be intense, but there is no stress inherent in it, and as we’ll see, the key to resilience is not to turn pressure into stress.
Pressure starts from the moment you wake up in the morning, where the demand is to get up. If you doze off again then suddenly jolt awake and realize you’re now going to be late for work, pressure increases. You rush to the office, and because you were late, you’re one step behind all morning. Your boss is waiting for your report, you need to reschedule the meeting you missed, and the new planning project that is on your desk needs a response by the end of the day.
Sound like stress? It isn’t stress at all; it’s just pressure.
It will only become stress if you add a critical ingredient: rumination, specifically ruminating about emotional upset. If you are late, do you accept that it has happened and then get on as quickly and efficiently as you can, or are you filled with guilt about having slept in, anger at yourself for doing so, and fear of the consequences? Do you run red lights in your impatience to get to work, or swear at the driver in front who you think is slow to get going when the lights turn green? That’s stress, and it serves no purpose. Traffic lights don’t change for you because you’re in a hurry. The driver in front didn’t go any faster, for all your cursing. Nothing changes the fact that you slept in and are late. You might say that you had a critical meeting to get to, so it’s no wonder you feel this way. Really? The problem with stress is that it will always justify itself. The simple fact is that you slept in and you’re late. Period.
As we’ll see, rumination and how to avoid it form a cornerstone of our approach to stress. The important point here is that you have a choice. You’re not genetically programmed to ruminate. It’s a habit you’ve developed and cultivated for years. And because it is habit, it can be changed. In this book, we’ll show you how. The process is very simple, just 4 steps:
- Waking up
- Controlling attention
- Becoming detached
- Letting go
Defining stress as rumination might be seen as placing the burden exclusively on the individual, exonerating the role of management — “if people get stressed, they should just stop ruminating. It has nothing to do with me.” Add on what the statement implies: “I’ll just go on behaving however I like.” Managers with this view are just that: managers, not leaders. Stress may be no more than rumination, but if you yell when people make mistakes and always blame your reports when things go wrong (“your problem,” as opposed to “our problem”), you don’t deserve the title of leader. You’re just a manager, and a bad one at that. If you do behave like this, now’s the time to change, rather than justify yourself with comments like, “I sometimes have a nuclear explosion, but minutes later I’m my wonderful self again.” Your reports suffer the fallout. Organizations do play a role, and that is to ensure that pressure isn’t transformed into stress. The way to start doing that is to follow a simple principle: don’t give people anything to ruminate about.
Singling out leaders for this example shouldn’t be taken to imply that resilience is more important for them than for anyone else. Rumination at any level of an organization will impair efficiency and productivity, and the benefits are not just for work. Think back to the last argument you had with your partner, probably about something as trivial as who should tidy up the kids’ mess. If you’re a ruminator you’ll generate any number of angry scenarios afterward, and they’ll usually generalize to all the other things your partner does that irritate you. Look more closely: they only irritate you because you’d do it differently, so in your mind your way must be best. Rumination poisons life at work and at home, and learning to become more resilient is for everyone in all situations. However, in a work context, senior staff provide the model for how an organization operates, so we will be including examples and strategies that focus on how leaders can become more resilient.
Want to cut the stress out of your life? Learn how to stay calm, focused, and in control with Nick Petrie’s new book, Work without Stress.
There is no question that leaders in the twenty-first century workplace are under increasing pressure. Each year we work with over a thousand leaders in our training programs whose workplaces are characterized by BOCA: Boundaries are blurred, where new technologies mean that work has penetrated all times and locations; Overload from the volume of work exceeding the ability to keep pace with it; increasing Complexity, with problems becoming more systemic and difficult to solve; and many leaders with high-achieving personalities have become Addicted to the stimulation of work.
And that’s just at work. Much of what people describe as workplace stress is actually stress they carry from their personal lives: ruminative thinking isn’t something you leave at the door to your office. The opposite is equally true: rumination won’t necessarily stop when you walk through your front door. Minds are portable, and we carry our thoughts with us wherever we go. What might change is the theme of the rumination: when we ask participants in our workshops to list their pressures at work and at home, the top three for the former are workload, change, and deadlines, and for the latter, family, health, and finances.
With all these pressures, is it possible to lead yourself and your team and be happy at work and at home, without getting completely stressed out? The answer, as proven by many of the leaders we work with, is a definite yes. We describe those who don’t get stressed—in other words, who don’t ruminate—as being resilient, but we’ve also emphasized that rumination is a habit. It may be a well-practiced one, but habits can be changed, so resilience is a skill that can be acquired by training.
It all begins with waking up, and leaders who often drift off into waking sleep are constantly saying how stressed they are. They lack resilience skills. Comparing their habitual behavior with the skills of resilient and effective leaders, the contrast looks like this:
Skilled in Resilience:
- Understand the difference between pressure (external demand) and stress (rumination), and teach their direct reports to do the same
- Accept that pressure is a natural part of having a good job, whereas stress is chosen
- Focus on what they and their team can control or have influence over, especially their attention
Unskilled in Resilience
- Constantly think about the what-ifs and if-onlys, without realizing they’re ruminating
- Imagine events to be bigger and more consequential than they really are
- Ruminate about other people and what others might think of them