Stress Kills Learning, Change, and Improvement

re-transformatorThe door to the closet was a bit open, so he elegantly pushed it slightly with his heel while passing it. A few steps later he stopped, as he noticed that the door had jumped open again. Being determined to fix this problem, he went back and pushed it with both hands, a bit harder this time. Again it jumped open.

His eyes began to show some distress while his mind narrowed in on this problem. Whatever he was heading for was forgotten – now only one thing counted: closing that door! He slammed it, hard, just to see it jumping wide open.

Now he was furious, tears began emerging in his eyes and he started shouting at the door: “Now will you close!” – the door didn’t listen, and it didn’t close, even though he was now slamming it repeatedly, harder and harder.

Finally, the door broke off and fell down on the floor, revealing that a pile of paper was a bit too wide for the closet, thereby preventing the door from closing. He looked at it with wide open mouth and eyes and left the scene with a still very high pulse and a wish to kill something.

What happened? Why did that man keep trying the same approach that obviously didn’t work? Why didn’t he learn?

Well, it is easy to just claim that he obviously has a bad temper. As a general characteristics. We would expect him to always behave like that and then we feel that no further analysis is needed. But…

I just read an exciting paper by Richard Boyatzis et al., Developing Sustainable Leaders Through Coaching and Compassion. It is not about men who try to close closet doors, but it says something about the effects of stress. One of them being a reduction of the capability to think creatively, to learn. When something is stressing us, we narrow in on that “something”, seeing it as an enemy, on which we must put all our attention. There is no brain capacity left for examining and learning, we are just thinking about how to fight or flight our way out of the problem.

What strikes me here is that this is exactly corresponding to what many organizations do when trying to run projects. Despite the miserable track records of projects using one of the established project management models, they keep believing that they just have to do more of it – that they didn’t do it enough the last time. So they are slamming the door harder.

It is, of course, worth a discussion whether an organization can be stressed or if only the individuals constituting it can be that. But according to my experience, stress is contagious. It easily becomes an inherent part of the organizational culture. Sort of, if you are pushing me, I am pushing someone else, who is pushing someone third – and so on and so forth. And all are additionally pushing back and perhaps also pushing ourselves, as this seems to be the way to behave. And then we all start slamming the doors instead of examining why they do not close normally.

Without learning, no change. It is impossible to make people behave differently if they cannot learn that they must do so. And the leaders, who should teach and tell the people – or better engage and encourage them – they need to be calm and learning as well, or otherwise they cannot themselves understand the concept of not just slamming the door but actually do the analysis.

Without change, no improvement. Obviously, everything that stays the same will not improve. So no Lean, no Six Sigma, no nothing in a stressful environment.

It seems like this is where to start if you want success with change and projects: get rid of the one thing that leads to all problems, get rid of stress.

About Jørgen Winther

Consultant in business and problem analysis, and process excellence. Lean, ITSM, Lean IT. Project and change management. Guides and assists in avoiding crises in change processes.
This entry was posted in Analysis, Change, Change Management, Coaching, Lean Thinking, Learning, Learning Organization, People, Project Management, Six Sigma and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Stress Kills Learning, Change, and Improvement

  1. Great post! In a recent American Psychology Association study, 49% of women report feeling an increase in their stress level in the last 5 years. We need to learn to be aware of our bodies reactions to stress so we can head it off earlier. Nice article!

    • Thanks :) You are right, stress is all around us. And we are trying to fight it with more requirements, more control, more focus. Clearly not something that works! I checked your website and found that you are a coach. Very good! Coaching is a way forward, if it isn’t done as yet another pushing mechanism. According to Boyatzis et al. (ref. the paper mentioned in my post) coaching – done right – actually helps the coach too. Almost a bit religious – this thing about getting by giving – but humans are social beings who benefit from being, well, social :)

  2. Excellent post Jorgen. The first step in anger management is to recognize what triggers your emotional reaction and accept that anger can be legitimate even if usually it is not an efficient way to solve problems like you described so well with the closet. So you need to find out what were the frustrations and then the succession of events that made you mad, It is rare that only one event is at the origin of your anger, Often there is a pattern that you can discover by writing in a diary the ” what, when and why” you became frustrated, angry or stressed. Then you can learn to use this negative energy into a positive way of changing things that do not work in your life or at work.

    • Thank you, Anne. Good to read your comment! It seems like stress is not the only thing that will make people behave “less than optimal”. I could imagine, though, that looking at brain scans and chemical features of the different origins of misbehaviour would reveal that they are often pretty much alike, i.e. same centres of activity in the brain getting active or passive, same chemicals (ACTH, cortisol, etc.) going up or down. Of course, I would also expect that there is no universal explanation that fits all people and all situations – as we are all different. But some common features could be in place. Maybe someone reading this has a deeper insight in such things than I have, and can explain?
      This all makes me think of yet another problem with organizational standard behaviour, such as project management methods: they assume that all people are identical and will react in predictable ways on what you do – which is certainly not the case in real life, meaning that the methods need lots of knobs and handles to turn in order to adjust them all the way through to the end of the project; and in addition, very skilled people to turn these knobs and handles in a proper way. And still this doesn’t sound probable to me – it is going to fail most of the times.
      Also, your thoughts on writing a diary (for anger management) makes me consider again what I have long had in mind, that it is not enough to put requirements on others for correct behaviour at work – each and every person there need to consider his or her way of interacting with the others and need to understand as well that the others are in a similar situation; that nobody is perfect and that problems will occur. Trying to be self-aware, understanding, and accepting that this is a journey, not a goal, for yourself as well as for others, should help (those who can handle that) to reach some kind of accommodation with their surroundings.

      • It is true that perception of facts and their interpretation is very personal. What we perceive is our reality and the “thinking errors” or “cognitive distortions” that our brain makes under stress impair our judgement of a situation leading to poor decision-making, irrational behaviors or depression.

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  5. PM Hut says:

    Hi Jørgen,

    I personally have a strategy when it comes to projects. If I feel that the project is not working, or is preventing me to improve my business (because it’s wasting a lot of otherwise billable time), then I kill it immediately. In fact, I killed a project this very morning, it was a small project that was supposed to take a few days, but it has taken me a couple of weeks so far, with no end in sight. I killed it and I proposed a workaround for the client.

    The thing is, it’s not a good practice to give up, but giving up on something is often the best solution to focus on better things.

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  7. Pingback: A Break in Time | The No Crisis Blog

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