In Part 1 of this blog (http://stewartbrownconsulting.co.uk/2017/11/09/under-pressure-coping-with-the-demand-to-be-commercial-part-1-of-2/), I introduced Albert Ellis’s A-B-C model, which illustrates how our beliefs influence how we respond to certain situations and people. I recommend reading Part 1 first, which, together with this Part 2, form the transcript for the talk I delivered at the The Lawyer Conference on “In-house Counsel as a Business Partner” on 6 November 2017.
There are a number of different tips that Ellis and other psychologists suggest can help break the unhelpful influence of faulty thinking on our thoughts and behaviour, to allow us to cope better with pressure.
First, Change the Activating Events. If you realise that certain tasks don’t bring the best out of you, get rid of them. Delegate them to someone else. Taking holiday and appropriate breaks throughout your day also fall into the category of changing activating events. Rearrange your diary to avoid another afternoon of back to back meetings. I used to get out of my office and walk around Canary Wharf when I felt rising tension. Break the Chain.
Second, allow time for self-reflection. What was it about that situation or person that seemed to provoke me? What thoughts was I telling myself? Notice what you notice. “Cherchez the should”, as Ellis used to say. Look for the I could have/should have/must type of formulation as an indicator of faulty thinking. Dispute it and replace it with a rational effective new thinking.
These are 2 additional steps that can be added to Ellis’s model – ‘D’ and ‘E’.
Let’s go back to the costs challenge example that I mentioned in Part 1 of this blog.
If your reaction to your COO’s challenge to axe 5% off your costs was to feel overwhelmed, then Dispute that thought. Where does it come from? It may come from a ‘can’t’ or a ‘must place, as in “I can’t think of a way forwards” or “I must find an innovative solution to this without losing staff”.
Instead, replace it with a more Effective way of thinking – the “E” in Ellis’s model – such as, ‘well I recognise that we are living in a VUCA world right now. I cannot change that. Yes, the world is an uncomfortable place but I don’t need it to be certain and comfortable always. So, I recognise that I may make mistakes, but I won’t let that stop me exploring options and making changes.” Rather than descending into spiralling negative thoughts, stick in the present, in the here and now. Ask yourself what I can do to help this situation now.
Third, innoculate yourself against stress by practicing building resilience. This may be more of a tip for aspiring leaders in your teams. Running through real and imagined scenarios, such as crisis situations, can help suppress those problematic thoughts from emerging.
Fourth, if an activating event causes stress, try reframing it as an opportunity for learning, growth or even as something potentially exciting. This may sound a little trite, but it could be a useful strategy, especially when motivating others. One of my areas of responsibility used to be the legal coverage of Emerging Market trading businesses. I remember the feeling of anxiety when yet another round of sanctions against Russia following activities in Ukraine resulted in a wave of questions from my business folks. Yet, as I discussed the situation with a colleague, I realised that this was a difficult but actually an intellectually challenging situation. This helped me to find the energy and excitement to carry on.
Finally, enrol others to help you. If you have identified that you have a tendency to respond in a particular way, get accomplices to tell you if they spot you exhibiting this behaviour. Give people permission to pull you up if you start to get tetchy. This is especially important for those in leadership positions who may be labouring under the false belief that there is no room for vulnerability in leadership.
Immunity to change
Now, it takes time and effort to relinquish engrained core beliefs and habits. This is because they are protective devices that shield us from overwhelming anxiety, although, ironically, they actually end up being a major cause of heightened anxiety.
There is no single quick technical solution to a situation that really requires adaptive change. This is one of the major reasons why psychologists like Kegan & Lahey believe that we don’t change even when we know that to not to do so is harmful – what they call the “Immunity to Change”.
According to Palmer and Cooper “stress occurs when pressure exceeds your perceived ability to cope.” This definition suggests that stress is triggered by external factors, such as work pressures and deadlines. But, more importantly, internal factors, such as the attitudes that we have to deadlines, have a role to play that hinder our ability to cope.
Break the chain of faulty thinking. Think yourself to better decision-making. But, this will take time as it involves rewiring the way that you think and discarding the prominence of beliefs you may have held for some time.
To be clear, I’m not excusing managers and organisations from responsibility for the looking after their employees. Much has been written about topics like building personal resilience, where the ‘real’ issue is the context – the workload, the excessive demands and poor line management. Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck have their detractors, who see the emphasis on rationality as a solution in the mould of a “pull up your socks” approach.
However, I hope these blogs have given you a brief introduction into how the A-B-C model could assist you and your team take responsibility for yourselves to identify and break the unhelpful influence of faulty thinking.
Oh. And you may be wondering how I responded to my IBGYBG colleague after his extraordinary outburst to be more ‘commercial’ (which I mentioned in Part 1 of this blog)? Well, thoughts of self-doubt did plague me. What if I was being too cautious? And what the hell did ‘commercial’ actually mean in this context? I certainly considered watering down my comments. But, I knew that my concerns were valid. So, I put the doubt to one side and continued to make my points in a calm and professional manner. And IBGYBG took my advice, albeit grudgingly. The trade was successful. And life went on.
Further reading (and watching):
Albert Ellis: A Guide to Rational Living. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1961.
Albert Ellis on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GyRE-78g_z0
Aaron Beck: Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, Inc. 1975.
Stephen Palmer and Cary Cooper: How to Deal with Stress Kogan Page, 2013.
Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey: Immunity to Change, Harvard Business Press, 2009.