Mike Bowler
Mike Bowler

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One of the more subtle forms of waste is psychological distress. When we are afraid or anxious, our sympathetic nervous system activates to prepare us for one of fight, flight or freeze. All good responses in a survival situation.

One of many things that the sympathetic nervous system does is to shut down what it considers to be non-essential services so that it can provide more energy to those parts of our body and brain that are needed in order to survive. One of those “non-essential” services that it shuts down is our pre-frontal cortex - the part of our brain focused on higher level, rational thinking.

What this means in practice is that anytime we are afraid or anxious, we are not capable of using our best thinking. That part of our brain is at least impaired, if not completely shut down, and this is an incredible source of waste in our system.

Our brains can’t distinguish between a legitimate physical threat, like a venomous snake in the grass, and a perceived threat such as your boss giving you a deadline - they both trigger the same kind of response. Some managers feel that they need to make up fake deadlines to “motivate” people and yet this rarely has the desired effect. When people believe the date is real, they’re in a state of anxiety and are not working at their best. Then when they learn that the dates were made up, they start ignoring them.

Any threat to our social status immediately triggers a survival response. This is why we usually overreact when our boss says “can you come into my office” with no reason given. Managers need to be particularly aware of the impact they have when they make requests. People frequently defer to a manager purely because of this implicit threat to their social status. Good managers are aware of this and take steps to make their people feel at ease.

We will often exclude managers from meetings because of this power imbalance and the impact it has on the staff.

Conversely, when we truly collaborate with others, we tend to relax and perform at our best. This is why techniques such as pair programming or mob programming can be so effective.

If you walk through a team space (when we’re in an office) and they’re so quiet you can hear a pin drop, their anxiety levels are almost guaranteed to be high. There are two reasons for this:

  1. People who are comfortable and performing well don’t tend to be that quiet in the first place. Particularly if they’re collaborating.
  2. Complete silence tends to raise people’s anxiety levels. The only time the forest is quiet is when there’s a predator nearby and we’ve evolved to respond to that.

As I write this, we are still in the middle of a global pandemic. That alone is causing stress and anxiety. When people feel their jobs might be at risk as well then that makes things even worse.

In conclusion, stress, anxiety and fear all have a detrimental impact to effectiveness, efficiency and predictability. While making the workplace better for the humans in it is an admirable goal in itself, here is yet another reason that it can have a positive impact on your organizations outcomes.

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