The Good: We know how to solve this problem.
The Bad: As stress increases, we become less able to solve the real problems… costing billions of dollars, reducing quality of life, driving economic meltdown and even destroying the environment.
The Ugly: It’s getting worse.
We’re facing a growing demand for collaboration at work, in life — but we’re creating conditions for the opposite. We’re at war with ourselves, at a cellular level, as our brains struggle to cope with requirements that are beyond the design scope. While current neuroscience makes this descending spiral brutally clear – it also offers solutions.
“Stress” is a generalization. It’s shorthand for a sense of imbalance and impending chaos. Cycle times are accelerating. Financial systems are melting. Waters are rising. So we feel stress. It’s an emotional signal of danger, and it’s one reason emotional intelligence is more important than ever. Unfortunately, stress is increasing.
When we “feel stressed” our brains and bodies trigger a series of adaptations to deal with threat. We are preparing to react to danger by fighting, running, or hiding. This biological system is highly effective for coping with certain threats, such as a tiger stalking you in the jungle. You don’t negotiate with tigers. You don’t innovate. If you want to survive, you run like heck, or hope you’ve got a big sharp stick handy.
Adapted for these “survival threats,” our bodies respond to stress by shutting down many systems related to long-term thriving (such as immunity, reproduction, empathic response, even analytical thinking) and put all the body’s resources into core muscles. It means that when we feel stress, we are biologically programmed to be less creative, less compassionate, less visionary.
Innovation versus Comfort
I’ve written before about two competing systems in the brain: certainty versus learning. When we’re stressed, the brain pushes for safety. We do what we’ve done before. We get a shot of a chemical that is “natural heroin” when we follow the known, the predictable – and yes, it is addictive.
Without carefully developing emotional intelligence, we fall into this million-year-old automatic reaction. Since few of us ever learn these skills in school or even at work, the results are predicable – one only has to look at daily news headlines to see that many people are derailed by this dynamic.
While it may feel as if the tigers are lurking, today few of us face this kind of threat. Instead we face ongoing, persistent threats tied to complex relational issues such as doing more work with less, talent shortages, and economic uncertainly. At work, the “tigers” are often other people; according to the 2012 Workplace Issues study, over 70% of challenges in the workplace are people-related.
Descending Spiral Kills Collaboration
So we have a vicious spiral. We’ve got long-term problems that require innovation and bringing people together. In the face of uncertainty, we feel vulnerable, stress kicks in, and we become less creative and collaborative, and we focus on the short-term, urgent. This reaction could make us more isolated and overwhelmed, which pushes us toward more stress.
This spiral makes it nearly impossible to solve the world’s biggest problems, such as global warming. These challenges require our most creative thinking and remarkable abilities to build coalition. Yet as soon as we start thinking about the realities of environmental devastation, stress kicks in, and we become less able to access either of those capabilities.
Meanwhile, according the IBM annual study of CEOs, the primary need identified by top leaders: Collaboration. A whopping 75% of the respondents call it “Critical.” Consider: If the number one need for the future of business success is that people connect, wouldn’t is be essential to develop the skills to do so? Yet empathy – the skill that would actually let people meet that need, is going down. Dramatically. Research published in Scientific American found a 75% drop in empathy over 30 years.
At the very same time, stress is increasing – a 2012 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology says it’s gone up around 20% over 25 years.
So we’ve got an increasingly complex environment where the ability to connect is the number one need – and we’re losing it. In fact, as I’ll explain in a minute, we may be losing empathy BECAUSE of the increasing stress. But for now:
The writing is on the wall: unless we develop better capabilities for managing these emotional complexities, the future is bleak.
Your Brain At War
One unfortunate effect of the increasing pace is further escalation of stress and deactivation of the very parts of the brain we most need to solve today’s challenges. Several brain-imaging studies have explored the interaction between our analytical and social brain functions; for example this study from the National Academy of Sciences proposes “anti-correlated functional networks.” That means when one set of brain functions (a network) is activated, others are suppressed. We call this “focus,” and it’s essential for coping with complexity.
One of those functional brain networks processes analytical data: Emails. Spreadsheets. Reports. Another processes emotional data: Faces. Tone of voice. Friend or foe. Optimally, the social brain network and the analytical brain network are interlocked and work together. At the same time, we’re able to suppress one system in favor of the other.
For example: We’re focused on getting through a hundred and sixty three emails, and someone comes to ask a question. We bark, “Just a MINUTE.” The task-focus required by analytical brain network suppresses the social brain functions that would allow us to connect appropriately with the other person.
Ignore Emotions to Make Bad Decisions
The same function occurs inside each of us. As we become more “focused,” we suppress signals such as discomfort. We ignore our own feelings so we can do the job. At the extreme, think of a warrior in a hostile environment. When bullets are flying, you’re supposed to be scared – but you have to suppress those feelings in order to function. If you become “too good” at disconnecting emotions, you turn off the regulatory function that would otherwise help you make more careful, humane, life-sustaining decisions.
Substitute “warrior” with “executive.” Now teach that person to suppress feelings that are supposed to arise when we’re making unethical decisions. It’s easy to see how someone can decide it’s a “good idea” to ignore a report that their deepwater well is likely to cause unprecedented environmental destruction… or their hedge fund is actually undermining global solvency.
Emotions serve as part of our regulatory system – when functioning appropriately they assist us to carefully evaluate impacts on ourselves and others. When they’re shut off, we make more dangerous choices. Emotions actually assist decision-making.
Couple that insight with the fact that the demands for analytical focus keep increasing. IBM is excited to sell us services to handle the growing surge: “2.5 quintillion bytes of data — so much that 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone.”
We’ve built incredibly sophisticated IT systems to handle complexity. We invest in those readily. What about the “HT” – human technology – to actually use these systems in a way that creates a prosperous future?
So we have increasing complexity driving us to focus narrowly. We have increasing stress pushing us toward short-term reactivity. Yet the problems we face require something different.
Meet Dr. De-Stress
If you’ve been to the doctor on a stress-related matter (and WebMD says three out of four US medical visits are stress related), then you’ve probably been treated by Dr. Herbert Benson. Not directly, of course – you might not have even heard his name, but his work has changed the way Western medicine handles stress.
Benson, now a professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School,was one of the many remarkable experts who spoke at the NexusEQ Conference in June 2013 on the campus of Harvard University. The conference focused on the intersection of the science and practice of emotional intelligence. He shared new data that stress is actually affecting our very DNA — we literally shape our own biology through our responses.
In 1975, Dr. Benson wrote a remarkable book called The Relaxation Response, articulating the biomedical antidote to stress. He later founded the Mind/Body Medical Institute, and became a professor at Harvard Medical School. He was one of the, if not the, pioneer researching and advocating treatment that works with the human mind and body.
To Stress or Not To Stress
Benson’s work is based one a simple, powerful idea: Just as we have a stress response, we have a relaxation response. In his words, we can learn to trigger this response and facilitate the human mind to bring for the emotions that open us to the positive influences in life.
This is an example of being smarter with feelings, a growing field of science called “Emotional Intelligence.”
The Antidote: Emotional Savvy
One the one hand, we’re wired to react in a manner that probably won’t help. Yet as Benson and others have shown, we’re capable of learning alternate responses. This, perhaps, is the reason emotional intelligence is so important today: increasing complexity puts social and emotional skills at a premium.
That’s probably why leaders with more emotional intelligence skills create stronger business value. Salespeople trained in these skills outsell others (in one study, 40% better). Many studies show that children trained in these emotional skills earn higher are more healthy, socially connected, and, at the same time, reach higher academic achievement.
Peter Salovey (now President of Yale University) and his colleague John Mayer were the first to define emotional intelligence with scientific rigor. Since that first paper in 1990, a plethora of research has emerged on the neurology of emotion and the links to learning, leadership, and life.
Perhaps even more importantly, around the world these scientific discoveries are being used to make life better at work, at school, and in communities. People are learning the skills of emotional intelligence with demonstrable results, even in “hardcore” business environments.
The Proof in Emotional Intelligence
While the term “emotional intelligence” was once the purview of esoteric researchers, it’s become so widely recognized that a worldwide conference on the subject convened on the campus of Harvard University in June. Perhaps even more compelling is the nature of the program: session after session, from all around the world, from every sector, we saw examples that emotional intelligence actually creates positive change. For children and families. For the environment. For health. For business.
Returning to stress and health, one example is Dr. Sandeep Kelkar, a pediatrician in Mumbai, India. Over a decade ago, Kelkar noticed that different children responded to the same treatment in different ways, and began to observe the family interactions. As a result, Kelkar began to work with the staff in his clinic on how they could go beyond “treating disease” and focus on a larger goal: the wellbeing of children in their care.
This led Kelkar to travel to California to learn about Six Seconds and the Self-Science process for social emotional learning. He began to experiment, then, with several colleagues created a foundation in Mumbai: EQuip kids – with a simple vision: What if every adult had the emotional intelligence skills to fully support children?
Kelkar, together with his colleague Sudha Srikanth, a preschool director, shared another the success story, and the practical ways they’ve used emotional intelligence as a “Psychological Vaccine” to create lasting wellbeing. Dr. Kelkar’s conclusion: “Emotional intelligence is the missing ingredient in healthcare, as well as the education system.”
Yes, we have a perilous situation in the world. Yes, stress is increasing, conspiring against our better nature, making it even harder to resolve the crises we face. Yet an antidote is at hand.