LONDON SUMMIT 2018
9th October 2018
IN ASSOCIATION WITH

The secret life of a line manager: how an unlikely experiment offers answers to emotional stress

30th May, 2018

Alex Burbidge



The chances are you’ll manage at least one team in your career.

For some, the experience is equal part challenging and exhilarating. For the rare few, it comes naturally. For most, however, it’s a feat initially far outside of their comfort zone. A new skill to master and an added stress to an already-busy workload. A mainly solo endeavour, involving lots of trial and error.

As a team member, it’s easy to spot which manager is which. However, what about the times when their usual levels of guidance, coaching and support falls unusually short and you notice a sudden change in behaviour? What’s behind it and how can you help?

There’s every chance it might be your manager at their most stressed and a well-disguised call for help. It can be brought on by anything from a sudden burst of impending deadlines, an excessive workload or a relationship crisis. The situations that we all occasionally find ourselves in.

As a professional wellness and stress management consultant, I wanted to shed some light on the daily pressure managers are under and how managing a team is actually a team effort.

To do this I’d like you to join me in the laboratory of Professor Robert Sapolsky at Stanford University.

Calling time on the rat race

Robert Sapolsky is an expert on stress – I’ve 16 years behind me, he has over 40 years.

Sapolsky believes we have a lot to learn from the way rats alleviate pain to cope with ongoing tension. Bear with me on this. Think about your own stress at work; you might recognise some of the same symptoms. 1 in 5 of us will experience them in some form in any one year.

Sapolsky described how his team separated two rats into cages and named them rat A and B. Both rats were given electric shocks and showed obvious signs of tension.  

Unfortunately for rat A, he was placed in a cage with no way of alleviating his pain. He was basically a sitting duck for getting zapped.

In the next cage, rat B was offered four opportunities to alleviate his pain, with positive and negative results. Bizarrely the options the rat had are the same four options open to us all as team members and managers in the modern workplace. Here they are…

 1, Handing out Abuse – The default response

Sapolsky places a somewhat docile rat into the cage with rat B.

As soon as rat B was zapped he would scurry over and take it out on the other rat. He would rip into his unsuspecting opponent and felt instantly better for it. Some immediate relief, followed by regret no doubt. The problem was this was just displacing the abuse.

It’s the classic stress management situation, where managers who feel overwhelmed don’t recognise their unfortunate tendency to take out their frustrations on others. In some cases, it’s one of their team.

Study after study tells us that whilst passing pain on to others might lighten your load monetarily, it actually compounds the issue. It’s not a sustainable (or particularly HR-friendly) solution.

Instead, I advise a structured, considered conversation should take its place. One without allegations and sides, only two people working together towards a shared solution. Your trust will grow stronger and no bridges will be burned.

2, Gnawing on Wood – Chewing on one’s problems

In this experiment, a piece of wood was placed in the cage. After rat B was again zapped he found the wood and enjoyed a good gnawing session. Again, showing clear signs of stress reduction.

The good news is this is less destructive. However, in most offices, it is hard to find nutritious meals never mind the social no-no of gnawing wood in public. Instead we tend to seek out the nearest vending machine to consume several chocolate bars or whatever comfort food takes our fancy. The knock-on effect is a high sugar rush and then a feeling of hunger and the same old problems.

As an alternative I recommend having some healthy but tasty snacks on hand. A healthy diet can go a long way towards a healthy and stable mindset.

3, Predictive Information – Blinded by the numbers

Sapolsky then installed a warning light to come on 10 seconds before rat B was zapped.

Interestingly, rat B started to cope better by using the light to predict when and how long the pain would last, even if it was the same dose being delivered. In fact, science tells us that we get less stress related disease when we have more control over when and how pain is received.

The only trouble is, as managers we can get addicted to wanting more and more information, which isn’t always available or reliable. We overdose on management information, schedule unnecessary meetings and work late to get sight of alarm information which could hurt our reputations and careers. This is made worse by the always-on culture digital economy which drives a false sense of urgency to even the most trivial of tasks.

As an antidote to information overload, I suggest leaning into the discomfort of your habitual need to know more by extending the intervals between meetings and checking your phone. Switch off your phone in the evening and go for a long walk at lunch time. Work towards training your brain to accept that you don’t need to be so predictive.

4, A Sense of Control – Letting go to get more back

Finally, Sapolsky gave rat B the opportunity to press a lever to reduce the level of shock.

The rat didn’t know that this time it was a placebo. It didn’t work, and the intensity of the shock remained the same. But all was not lost - in the rat’s mind it now had a sense of control. It’s stress levels reduced and it was better able to cope with the ongoing tension and pain.

Us humans aren’t that different: having a sense of control can lead to changes in line management behaviours. The main one being micromanagement of staff. It boils down to not trusting others with pulling the lever and therefore smothering staff with a hands-on approach. Although this may help with our own issues of maintaining control, it can kill off any creative opportunities for teams to develop new ideas. Without new ideas you’re standing still. And if you’re standing still whilst your competitors innovate you’re actually moving backwards.

So, what does this all mean for the modern manager?

There’s no denying it, management is a difficult job.

The pressure to maintain focus, look good and keep competitive is driving managers to self-medicate by alleviating pain through extreme actions. Even the most professional and mindful manager at some point will feel a sense of overwhelm. We’ve all been there.

My key piece of advice is to have predefined positive outlets where companies can proactively engage with their line management communities to talk about both positive and negative behaviour. Examples include: Workshops promoting how to use your stress response in a positive way to help others and aid business performance. Regular webinars to sign post support, and methods to prevent and reduce stress at work. Annual surveys where staff provide feedback on how the company is supporting their mental, physical and emotional health.    

Like most things, prevention is better than cure and the investment you make in your staff’s wellbeing isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s good for business too.

Alex Burbidge

Alex is the Founder and Lead Consultant of BigSmiles.co, a forward-thinking wellness and stress management consultancy helping companies large and small to transform their health, for good. His experience spans 16 years assisting entrepreneurs, managers and entire departments to navigate the highs and lows of modern corporate life. He is also a professional member of the International Stress Management Association and a Chartered Member of Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Alex’s latest project sees him offer retreats and coaching sessions for those wishing to unplug from pressing business issues and find their calm amongst the chaos.

We welcome your opinions and feedback to articles that appear in Mad World News. Please send comments and suggestions to editor@madworldforum.com. We also invite editorial contributions for future editions of Mad World News. Guidelines for contributions can be found here.