Archives for the month of: August, 2013

Where do you sit on the Fight or Flight spectrum?  If you don’t know, that’s a problem.

“Let’s go skydive!!!”  Joey the skydiving videographer was trying to get me pumped up, but I just wasn’t feeling it.  Joey was a six-foot-three, wiry, tanned dude from somewhere in Europe, with an accent that sounded like Schwarzenegger was trying to speak in French.  His presence as videographer was part of a going-away present from a skydive-loving boss of mine.

Joey lived to attack that skydive, mon ami!  Once the camera was on, Joey was going 1000 kilometers an hour.  On the fight or flight spectrum, Joey was a fighter.  

While I liked the effort, the problem was that I wasn’t particularly pumped, so the fight action didn’t inspire me.  But I wasn’t scared, either, so Joey’s approach was more amusing than inspiring.

All photos by Joey, the Fighting Videographer

All photos by Joey, the Fighting Videographer

I used to perform as an actor in front of (sometimes) 1000 people (and sometimes only 5!).  While I certainly would be excited, stage fright wasn’t my problem.  I knew of some performers (like a cast member named Sarah) who got so nervous they would vomit before every show – that’s how afraid she felt every time.  She seriously looked like she’d rather be anywhere than preparing to go on stage.

Unlike Joey, whose fight instincts are heard on the DVD of my skydive, and unlike Sarah, whose flight risk prompted us to consider locking the side door to prevent her escape, I neither fight a challenging situation head-on, nor do I attempt flight from it.

I live in a weird middle ground that I like to call, “Stand Upright”.  Just go with it.

Jim Collins, the bestselling business author, expounds upon the need for firms to think clearly and decisively, while also avoiding rushing into an action, in his latest book, Great by Choice.  Great companies, he and his team found, don’t rush into decisions, but neither do they shy away from new ventures.  Instead, they take their time to get the right perspective, and then act decisively.  That’s what I mean by Standing Upright in the face of challenges.

Most individuals struggle with this, especially in intense situations.  What do you do, instinctively, when your CFO publicly challenges your work?  How do you respond if your client looks bored to tears, and you can sense the deal slipping away?

My experience has shown that if you launch into either fight or flight mode, you’re leaving value behind.  Instead, if you’re able to stand upright to that challenge, collect your thoughts, listen attentively, you’ll then be able to choose the correct response.  It might even be that the correct response was your first instinct!  But if you never take that moment to introspect, how do you know for sure?

What’s the point, you ask?  Being in control, making sound decisions, and responding effectively to challenges is key to business (and acting, and skydiving).  If we’re locked into too strict of a fight-or-flight response pattern, we’ll either attack a problem too aggressively, without foresight or thought, or we’ll run away from it by shelving a project too early, ignoring an office conflict, or backing down to an assertive boss.

But apart from institutional pressures (some are obsessed with quick-strike actions, while others freeze or run away), there’s this simple fact: most people don’t know their own tendencies well enough to modify them.

To maximize our effectiveness in business, we must first understand where along the fight or flight spectrum we habitually live.  Do you tend to fight, or do you veer towards flight?  If you’re not sure, try these things.  Sometimes just reading the examples will shed some light into your predilections:

  1. Try skydiving.  Or bungee-jumping.  Or some other (controlled) extreme sport.
  2. Take boxing lessons, in which your opponent actually hits you.
  3. Sign up for a speech class.  Or a singing class, in which you have to perform in front of a live audience.
  4. Volunteer to give a presentation at work on a topic of your choosing.

These are just ideas.  As you read them, did you recoil in horror?  Or did you say “hell yes, sign me up!”?  Neither is correct – your response is legitimate.  The whole point is to be aware of your response, and to know when you need to work outside your comfort level.

We owe ourselves, and our families, friends, and colleagues, the realization of self-knowledge.  We need to know ourselves exceptionally well, so that we can then perform at the level we desire.  Part of that is knowing how our gut tells us to react when we encounter a challenging client.  Do we yell?  Do we fight?  Or do we retreat with a stream of “yes ma’am” and “sir, yes sir”?

You might be a fighter like Joey, or you might be a flight risk like Sarah.  Either way, you can take immediate action to alter your animal reactions to give more of yourself to the world.  If we know ourselves, and practice moving towards a space of authentic responses, rather than just a stock fight-or-flight response, we can all add real value to others.

Learn to Stand Upright, and leave the fight or flight reaction to true emergencies.  Come back for Part 2, about how to move away from those initial reactions.

Out comes the Chute!

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“I hope you kids see what a silly waste of resources this was.”

“He worked really hard, Grandma.”

“So do washing machines!”

One of my favorite exchanges in one of my favorite movies comes from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  Clark W. Griswold has just completed the big reveal of his 25,000 house-light display, except for one problem.

They don’t turn on.

All that effort, wasted (at least until his much-smarter wife turns on the power switch)!  The reasons behind Clark’s wasted efforts are myriad, but the exchange captures the essence of a problem many of us face.

Don’t be busy.  Don’t work hard, like a washing machine.  Live effectively.

A few weeks ago, I ran into a colleague from my last team, and as she was literally running down the stairs, I asked her how things were going.  “We’re so so busy!” was her reply.  She’s not alone – over the past few months, whenever I ask someone the same question, it generates an automatic response.  How was work?  “Busy”.  Not a single person has said, “Engaged”, or “Happy”, or “Bored as f*ck”.  OK, maybe a few people are bored as f*ck.

But why busy?  What do we lose by clinging to that stock response?

We all deal with the ceaseless demands of daily life: emails, meetings, changing priorities, more emails, crying kids, barfing cats, a phone call here or there.  It creates a constant state of busy-ness that can overwhelm.

Constantly selling the idea of being busy to one another is a way to quickly validate our work day.  I’m important – see how busy I was?  See?

Even the word “business” implies that we should be doing things.  All the time.  According to the Pages dictionary I’m using, the sense connoted by the word “business” in Old English was ANXIETY.  What’s another word for anxiety?  Stress.

The American Psychological Association noted in 2010 that 69% of Americans report work as being a significant source of stress, 41% feel stressed during the typical day, and 51% lose productivity because of that stress.

From the flight of stairs above, I asked my colleague if she was being effective through all that busy-ness.  She had no reply, but the distinction is crucial.

We can easily fill our days with tasks  But to be truly effective at what we do requires that we slow down to process new information.  We have to think things through, and think about connections, and ponder alternatives.  We can’t do that if we’re constantly busy.

By constantly reminding ourselves and others of how busy we are, we are losing our ability to think, to truly connect with each other and our work, and we are turning our days into endless streams of to-do lists.

We need to equip ourselves with tactics for avoiding trap of busy-ness.  I like the following:

  1. Make a plan for the day.  It takes all of 10 minutes to write down what you need to accomplish.  If you think you can’t spare 10 minutes, then you REALLY NEED to spare those 10 minutes!!
  2. Block out time to think.  No one is 100% extroverted.  I like to book myself private “appointments” throughout the day just to ensure no one bugs me.  Or just leave the office.  What will they do?  Fire you for taking a walk?
  3. Turn off your email.  Not all day (although I like that idea!).  But you can certainly shut it down for an hour, right?  If something is so important that your boss needs to reach you immediately, trust me, she’ll find you.

These tips won’t reduce the number of things you need to accomplish during the day, but it will help you refocus your attention without feeling like you’re shirking responsibility.  And it will help you lessen the stress you feel at work, having to manage all those tasks.  After all, that email about the refrigerators being cleaned out probably doesn’t warrant your immediate attention.

So tomorrow, when someone asks you how you’re doing at work, decide to be effective instead of merely being busy.  Working hard is great, but it’s for washing machines.  Humans decide to be effective.