Many people respond to pressure by reverting to behaviour learnt as a child. But throwing your toys in a leadership role can have serious consequences for co-workers and productivity. Swiss executive Pierre Wauthier shocked the business world last year when he committed suicide and in the note he left behind, he blamed the company’s chairman for putting too much pressure on him. Only weeks before, Carsten Schloter, chief executive of a Swiss mobile phone company committed suicide shortly after he had said in an interview that he had trouble switching off at home and how he found himself unable to tune out of work mode.
The suicide rate among Wall Street traders is said to be uncommonly high. The Financial Post ran an article titled “Why High Finance Workers Commit Suicide”, which pointed out that having a stressful job was not the problem – it was the way in which individuals handled the stress that could lead to trouble.
Traders tend to be highly competitive alpha males with lofty career expectations to whom seeking help is a sign of weakness. This is a phenomenon seen worldwide – the top executive as the high achiever, confident, ambitious and driven to succeed, often admired for self-reliance to the point of appearing arrogant, even ruthless in the pursuit of success.
But South African leadership expert and motivational speaker Chris Breen says it is exactly this kind of high-achieving leader who is set up to lose in the modernday business world. He says research shows that high achievers are less likely to take the time to check in with others (especially if they are men) and are more likely to make poorer decisions than those who consult others. In addition, people are trained to put systems, structures and processes into place, trying to control and predict business scenarios and economic trends – but when things become unpredictable and uncertain, pressures increase and the usual practices and knowledge systems don’t apply. It is in this environment that executives easily fall victim to their emotions, either displaying immature or unhelpful behaviour such as verbal and physical outbursts, or feeling so overwhelmed by circumstances that they are rendered incapable of duty and may even contemplate suicide.
Training executives to properly deal with stress falls in the domain of executive education and business schools around the world offer a range of different courses aimed at improving both business and interpersonal skills. It is a multimillion dollar industry that only shows signs of growing as a lack of skills and ability is counterbalanced by the increased demands posed by technology, and the pace of the world economy.
In 2001, Business Week magazine estimated that executive education in the USA was worth about $800 million per year. Only 10 years later, in 2011, $67 billion was spent on corporate training in that country.
But while the money and the corporate will to educate is there, questions have been raised about the efficacy of these courses. In essence, they aim to change behaviour and personality patterns, which are complicated psychological processes that have been put in place through years of personal development.
What does it take to actually shift the behaviour of top business leaders? One of the most important factors is control of the emotional domain; the ability to respond and not react in situations of stress. Breen says the evidence from neuroscientific research shows that we draw heavily on our lived experience in our responses to stressful situations. The result is that we respond by automatically downloading and reacting in a set, unconscious way. He believes that working for change requires one to move into the unconscious or invisible areas and journey through a process where we have to open our minds, hearts and wills.
“What we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we are made aware of how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds,” he says. Teaching people to have different responses is not easy and there are different ways to go about this. Some experts, like Breen, who teaches on the Executive MBA at the UCT Graduate School of Business and runs the school’s flagship Leading Executive Programme, take a more unconventional approach.
Instead of a traditional lecturer-student relationship, his courses are more like life coaching sessions in which people are taken on a journey of self-awareness and discovery. He addresses the ego-drive to succeed and examines how it operates in each individual. People are encouraged to find their own blind spots and to explore different ways of responding to situations. He incorporates teachings from various sources, such as Visa credit card founder Dee Hock, who said, “Success, while it may build confidence, teaches an insidious lesson: to have too high an opinion of self. It is from failure that amazing growth and grace so often come, provided that one can only recognise it, admit it, learn from it, rise above it, and try again. There is no reason to be discouraged by shortcomings.”
Breen believes in getting individuals to establish what pushes their buttons and “sets them off”. This is also what leadership expert Wendy Palmer talks about in her Leadership Embodiment programme. She shows people how to “interrupt” the “overwhelm” – so when you begin to feel the rush of emotion you know how to stop it, check it, and find the appropriate response.
That emotional rush was described as an “amygdala hijack” by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. It describes how if the part of the brain called the amygdala perceives a threat, it triggers a response that overtakes and essentially hijacks the neocortex or rational brain. The amygdala can act faster than the neocortex – to enable us to fight, take flight or freeze – but it can also lead to irrational behaviour and dangerous decision-making.
Goleman said that self-control is crucial for situations when an amygdala hijack is occurring as it can lead to a counter amygdala response and a situation where emotions overrule rational thought processes. In the workplace, this may take the form of people shouting uncontrollably at each other, effectively behaving like children.
Such scenarios are hugely detrimental to office morale and personal feelings of wellbeing and can lead to dangerous mental health conditions as well as decreased productivity and stress in the workplace. Leadership programmes with a strong emphasis on self-awareness and emotional control do much more than help an individual cope with his or her emotions – they equip leaders with the emotional tools to navigate through troubled economic times and periods of personal stress, as well as the increased levels of stress that come with more senior positions of power.