Who is in Control?

by Stevie Ray

First published in the Business Journal Newspapers, January 2021

Right now, in America and across the world, every business leader has one thing on their mind, “How can I keep my staff focused and productive during one of the most stressful periods in history?” Your business might be afflicted with changing sales patterns, distance working, and economic upheaval, but the greatest threat to your company is rising stress levels among your staff. Stress doesn’t just make people feel bad, long-term stress decreases mental acuity, creative problem-solving, communication skills, and cognition. Add increased rates of illness, and the impact of stress will certainly be seen on your P&L.

 

Some companies deal with stress with a let’s push through this approach. That approach does work, but only for Acute Stress. Acute stress is short-term, like a traffic jam or a heated argument. The human brain is designed to manage acute stress. However, chronic stress—negative events that last a few hours each day over a period of weeks—is beyond the brain’s ability to mitigate. When in chronic stress, the brain engages in the General Adaptation Syndrome. This syndrome has three stages: Alarm Reaction Stage: the fight-or-flight response, Resistance Stage; the body attempts to repair itself. If stress does not dissipate, this stage can cause irritability and poor concentration, Exhaustion Stage: a draining of physical and emotional resources, resulting in burnout.

Rather than employ quick pick-me-ups—which boost morale only briefly—leaders should consider the issue of Locus of Control, a term in psychology which refers to where control is thought to originate in someone’s life. People who feel an Internal Locus of Control believe that the events in their life are the result of their own actions. People who feel an External Locus of Control feel that events are the result of the world acting upon them. Even though both types of people experience the same event, those with an internal locus of control experience less stress, recover from the negative events more quickly, and are more productive.

To be clear, it is not who actually has control over their environment that matters, it is those who feel in control who do better in life. If a child gets good grades and you say, “That is wonderful. You are naturally smart,” or “You are so gifted,” you are fostering an external locus of control. The positive outcomes are a result of factors outside of the child’s control. However, if you say, “You must have worked very hard to get those grades,” you are fostering an internal locus of control. Children who feel an internal locus of control go on to choose more challenging work, and excel at future tasks. Those with an external locus of control shy away from difficult challenges, and get lower grades. In short, it isn’t the size of the challenge that causes stress, it is the belief in the individual that they have control over their situation that allows them to succeed.

It is easy to see the comparison between school children and your staff. How well your staff can face potentially stressful challenges goes beyond effective training, and the tools they have to perform their job. Those two factors certainly do play a role in employee satisfaction and success, but the ability to employ those factors depends on whether the employee feels in control of their life. The great thing about locus of control is, we don’t need to actually be in control, we just need to feel in control. In studies about stress and productivity, those subjects who were able control even minor decisions fared better. In one study, subjects were placed in a booth and told that an uncomfortably loud buzzer would sound every few minutes. Some subjects were given a button and told that they could choose when the buzzer would sound. Other subjects had no control over the buzzer. Both groups were subjected to the same negative stimulus, but those with the button reported feeling no stress at all.

Rather than saying, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” give your staff a feeling of control by asking their input, take a vote rather than issue a directive, allow them to make as many decisions as possible, no matter how insignificant. Controlling everyday decisions puts the power back into their hands, and helps them navigate the stressful waters ahead.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

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