This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.
I hear all the time about stress reduction and the importance of eliminating stress from your life. The problem is, if we eliminated all the stress, we would also eliminate all progress and success. Stress is healthy, in the same way that food is healthy: we need it pretty much every day, but too much can give you a belly ache or cause other health problems. It’s not necessarily the food per se, it’s the quantity or quality that kills you.
Stress, at root, is anything that gets us moving, be that thinking, feeling, or acting. When a stressful event occurs, we experience physical and psychological reactions. It is the combination of the stressful event along with our reactions to it that we need to know how to use to our best advantage. It’s when we don’t use stress to our advantage, or when it gets out of control, that we start experiencing the negative effects of stress: illness, distractibility, reduced team performance and organizational commitment, loss of creativity, and so on. In order to really understand how stress works, though, it will be helpful to look at cavemen and the starship Enterprise.
Let us turn the clock back twenty thousand years or so and consider Thag. Thag is a hunter, a member of a nomadic band of hunter-gatherers. In Thag’s line of work, the biggest risk is being eaten by something that disagrees with you. On a typical day, Thag wakes up in the morning, grabs his trusty spear, and heads into the primeval forest to hunt. He probably does not have a cup of coffee, there being a notable lack of Starbucks in the forest primeval and besides, Thag hasn’t yet invented money.
So far, this has been a fairly low stress day for Thag. There is enough stress, specifically hunger or the needs of his family, to get him up and out hunting, but nothing too extreme. This is about to change. As Thag makes his way through the forest, birds chirping ominously in the background, a tiger suddenly springs out. Now the stress level skyrockets. Thag’s heart starts beating faster, his breathing comes more quickly, and the blood is really flowing in his veins, which, in point of fact, is where he’d like to keep it. Under the surface, as it were, epinephrine and norepinephrine (the chemicals formerly known as adrenaline and noradrenaline) are released into Thag’s blood. Energy is routed from non-essential functions, such as digestion, healing, and the immune system, to Thag’s muscles. In little more than a heartbeat, Thag is ready to fight or run.
But wait! Since when are digestion, healing, and the immune system non-essential? Without them, we’re not going to be particularly happy or healthy. Fundamentally, if you’re looking at a hungry tiger, or, more to the point, if that hungry tiger is looking at you, neither fighting off the flu nor digesting your last meal are particularly high on the priority list. Your goal is to live long enough to worry about the flu otherwise that last meal really will be your last meal.
Why not run or fight and also maintain digestion, healing, and the immune system? Well, to answer that let’s jump from the distant past to a not quite so distant future. Whenever the starship Enterprise is attacked by Romulans, Captain Kirk orders full power to weapons and shields. That makes a certain amount of sense: when someone is trying to blow you out of space, you don’t want to put half power to the shields. Sometimes, though, full power is just not quite enough. When that happens, as it so often does, Kirk orders emergency power to the shields as well. At that point, Mr. Spock usually observes that such an action will mean taking power from life support, which never stops Kirk but does serve to make the scene more exciting (which is also a form of stress, albeit a pleasant one at least when it’s happening to someone else). Basically, the Enterprise may be big, but it’s not infinitely large. It has only so much power. That power can be put in different places, shifted around as necessary, but there’s still a finite limit to how much there is. Most of the time life support, or long-term survival, is a pretty high priority. However, when confronted with hostile Romulans, the short-term need to not be vaporized takes priority.
On Star Trek, this is known as a Dramatic Moment. For Thag, however, it’s more commonly known as the Fight or Flight response. Confronted with danger, the stress triggers Thag’s body to fight or run. Like the Enterprise, Thag’s body is finite. He has only so much energy to go around.
Organizational Psychology for Managers is phenomenal. Just as his talks at conferences are captivating to his audience, Steve’s book will captivate his readers. In my opinion, this book should be required reading in MBA programs, military leadership courses, and needs to be on the bookshelf of every Fortune 1000 VP of Human Resources. Steve Balzac is the 21st century’s Tom Peters.
Stephen R Guendert, PhD
CMG Director of Publications