There are three categories of stress: Positive stress, Tolerable stress and Toxic stress. Some examples of positive stress are adjusting to a new work schedule or sitting in traffic worried you might be late for an appointment. It is positive stress because it is short lived. Tolerable stress refers to a physiological state that could potentially disrupt brain architecture but can be managed by leaning on friends and family. Examples here are the death of someone we loved or even a divorce. These events have minimal long term consequences. Toxic stress is frequent and prolonged stress that disrupts the brain’s make up. This stress impacts our organs and leads to disease. Some examples here are physical and/or emotional abuse, depression, drug abuse, and in some cases, extreme poverty.
At some point in our lives, we most certainly all experience positive and tolerable stress. I do not have the data to support the percentage of us that experience toxic, stress but I would venture to say that no one is able to get through this life without toxic stress. What is the relevance here for talking about this on Cultureinfusion.com? After all, the site is a source of information on leadership and creating positive intentional cultures. Let me answer that question with a personal story.
Learning how to cope with adversity is an important part of healthy childhood development. If we do not learn healthy coping mechanisms when we are young, as adults we will struggle. Our bodies activate a variety of physiological responses to stress. When I was young, I used to ride horses. I had a horse and so did most of my friends. We all rode horses for fun, but one friend of mine was involved in horse riding competitions. He did barrel racing and jumping, and the horse that he used to compete was not a horse he rode for recreation. None of were allowed to take that horse out of the stable.
One night, I was invited to go with my friend to watch him compete at the rodeo. After the competition, his dad let me sit on the competition horse. This horse was much larger and stronger than any horse I had ever ridden. The positive stress kicked in. I was excited and exhibiting the characteristics of positive stress. My heart rate rose and my blood pressure increased. Being a kid, I had no idea how important the words of my friend’s father were when he said “Whatever you do, do not walk the horse near the gate.” What he was referring to was the entry gate into the competition area. You see, the horse was conditioned that when he went near that gate this was his queue to run and compete. I did just what I was instructed not to do, and as I walked up to that gate, the horse took off. Luckily for me I fell off right way or who knows what kind of injuries I could have sustained. This positive stress (while it did not seem positive at the time) was short lived and taught me a huge lesson in listening to those in authority.
Positive stress in our organizations can be advantageous. When we create environments that encourage risk taking and see failure as a tax for success, we will introduce positive stress. We, as our staff, will be uncomfortable. We will each feel that uptick in our gut which is really our bodies physiological state changing. Great innovations come from these moments of positive stress — but when we cross that line and these stresses start to enter into the tolerable state, we need to take notice. We are not made to live in one tolerable stress event after the other.
In our business lives this type of stress can be seen in events like reductions in force (RIFs), public reprimanding of staff, gossip, and constant overtime requirements. Today as workers, we rarely disconnect. We take our laptops on vacations, and we operate our teams with single points of failure. Single points of failure are where one person has all the knowledge and is relied on 24 X 7 to support a customer. While this is called tolerable stress, do not be fooled that without a break in, these events and a strong support system your culture will eventually move into the toxic zone.
Toxic stress is not sustainable. Your engagement will diminish, your attrition rate will rise, and as a leader, your staff will stop talking to you. So what are the signs that your organization is headed into the toxic zone? Here are some good indicators:
- Your go-to people — the ones you can always count on to give you honest feedback — have stopped talking to you
- Constant complaints with no solutions offered
- Blame, and quickness to point the finger
- High turnover
- No one is willing to go above and beyond, it is simply “Not my job”
- Complete lack of focus and follow through
- Zero enthusiasm regardless of the subject, project, or event
- Poor quality
- Lack of trust
- Lack of innovation
What can you do as a leader if you feel your organization is heading into the Toxic zone? Address the problems head on before you before you lose the hearts and minds of your most talented employees. Whatever has led to this will not go away on its own. As a leader, take responsibility and commit to working together to find solutions. The work is hard, but the alternative is far worse. Engagement is the soul of every great organization. We all have to embrace it as the key measurement of our success as a leader.