We are often told that our pace of life, increased business demands, overwhelming amounts of information, and unpredictable markets are causing high stress and anxiety at all levels in our organisations. Those of us working with such change are frequently asked to live with high levels of uncertainty, putting strain not only on ourselves as individuals, but also on our ability to work effectively – an ability on which our livelihood depends. For coaches, HR partners, and indeed every manager, there are some important psychological ideas that can help us get the best out of our clients, our staff and ourselves.

Effective functioning can be summarized as the ability to stay thinking and feeling, managing our experiences and keeping a connection to others. Under stress, or trying to avoid anxiety, we often stop feeling and thinking to engage in what in transactional analysis is sometimes called ‘driver behaviour’. These drivers are: be perfect, try hard, please, be strong, hurry up and the recently discovered ‘take it’. The qualities that are usually our strengths become knee-jerk reactions.

  • Excellence becomes paralyzing perfectionism
  • Perseverance becomes ‘hamster-wheeling’
  • Friendly cooperation slides into mindless pleasing
  • A sense of responsibility turns into shouldering everything
  • Speed and multi-tasking becomes agitation and inability to complete
  • Entrepreneurial thinking becomes self-serving pushiness.
Driver behaviours are not necessarily catastrophic for an organisation – in fact, organisations might be relying on us for that very behaviour; or it may be that we are reflecting the organisation’s ‘cultural driver’. This can be damaging, however, as it is not only unhealthy for the individual, but creates an old familiar pattern, making it difficult to foster innovation and creativity. When an organisation needs to respond to changing landscapes, ‘doing what we’ve always done’ is only going to ‘get us what we always got’.

But sometimes, the stress reaches a level that can‘t even be managed by driver behaviour. Either because of overwhelming emotion, or because a particular situation has ‘pushed a button’ from the past, a person can be triggered into what is effectively a trauma response. A particularly useful model for understanding the trauma response is the ‘window of tolerance’ – pictured above. It illustrates the range of our functioning in which we can stay stable: thinking and feeling about our experiences, and behaving in a way that is appropriately adapted to our environment. It also shows what happens to us when something triggers an old trauma response: we resort to instinctive reactions of fight, flight, freeze, flop (go numb) or submit. We go into ‘hyper-arousal’ (becoming anxious, agitated, angry, hyper vigilant or obsessive), or we go into hypo-arousal, numbing ourselves to reality and perhaps reacting with depressive symptoms.

It is important for leaders and managers to get to know the patterns of stress, to recognise the signs and become familiar with the triggers. This way, we can pause to think, ‘engage brain’, and find ways of tolerating our anxiety.

We see many stressed leaders working on the edges of their window of tolerance. Sometimes, their stress responses are evident – in emotional outbursts, paranoia or even dissociation. But often they are disguised in various ways. The fight response can show up as aggression or bullying; the flight or freeze response as absenteeism, sickness or perhaps closing the door of the office, over-working and so on. The hypo-aroused response shows up in managers mindlessly obeying the rules, or becoming emotionless, doing their job without engaging with what is really happening around them.

This sort of behaviour can be dangerous for an organisation, not only because it is unproductive but because people around the traumatized individual pick up the intolerable anxiety and react to it with their own dysfunctional behaviour.

For those who recognize they are slipping into stress related behaviours there are two things important in finding your way back into stable functioning. The first is mindfulness: practice staying aware and compassionate, focusing on what you are experiencing in your body; developing a sense of self that is separate from overwhelming feelings or a desire to shut down. The second is to keep in connection with others: the best and most nourishing way we can regulate ourselves and regain the power to manage our challenges is by making contact with another person – reaching out for their support and allowing them in.

Those of us who work with others for their development, can provide a quiet and supportive space where this work on better functioning can be done, anxiety can be tolerated and new ways of behaving practiced.

By Charlotte Sills, experienced coach and coach supervisor at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School