One of the oldest sayings I can remember about the even temperedness of being a submariner was something that I heard a junior officer relay to the Captain during a multiple casualty on the George Washington. We had just had a very stressful few weeks in a sea tossed by typhoons and generally bad weather. A small fire broke out in lower level engine room from a carelessly tossed cigarette butt. It had landed in some kem wipes and caused a bit of smoke. The damage control team rushed to the scene and just as we got there, the boat reached periscope depth. The seas were so bad, the rudder ram struggled to keep the rudder on course. At one point, the bolts on the end cap gave way with an awful wrenching sound and hydraulic oil under 3000 psi came out in a hissing mist. Above us, one of the Machinist Mates had been priming a pump and abandoned his station to try and shut the oil supply off before all of the hydraulic system emptied into the bilges. He forgot to shut the water off. The water was overflowing into the overhead right above where we were finishing extinguishing the fire, soaking all of us.
The Captain called for an update and the Ensign said “Don’t worry Captain, the flooding is putting out the fire”.
It was a bit stressful that day.
Like most people, I have been exposed to one form of stress or another for most of my working life. Stress can be self-induced or situationally induced. Very often, both occur at the same time. A little bit of stress is good for you. It’s a reminder that you have to work harder than you expected to achieve a goal. Since I deal with continuous improvement as a discipline, stress has never been very far from my day to day life.
In the Navy, stress was a building technique. Early in the journey, you feel the stress of the work you are exposed to and the leaders who are placed over you. Both are intentionally designed to make you a better sailor and someday rise to the level of success where you can lead others.
In the submarine world, stress is a reminder that you are operating a vessel under extreme conditions even on average days. The boats are designed to go quickly into harm’s way and achieve superiority under the worst circumstances. The fact that you are operating under millions of gallons of merciless sea water only makes the stress more real.
But achieving success means that you learn to manage the stress. It never really goes away. It just becomes more controlled.
In the civilian world, stress comes in many different forms. Each individual has many different triggers for that stress – a new position, fatigue, unrealized expectations from team members and so on. Even though you are not operating under the water, there may be times when it seems like you are completely submerged. Combine that with normal external pressures and the stress can often become overpowering.
As most people recognize, stress has a lot to do with balance or lack of it. We need stress to stay motivated and interested in the things we do for a living. But too much of it results in the exact opposite. We actually lose the motivation and fun that we once experienced and become less interested. If this is happening to you, be ready to hit the wall at some point. The accumulation of the emotional toll will create a situation where shutting down is definitely on the horizon.
How do you know it’s coming?
First, you need to recognize the signs. These may include:
- Extreme anxiety and worrying about things you can’t change
- Flying off the handle
- Feeling sorry for yourself
- Engaging in passive aggressive behavior
Even if you don’t see these in yourself, the people around you will notice the changes.
The people in your work group certainly do. They might not know what to do with their interpretations, but they become less effective because you are less effective.
Example: Bob is a manager who wears his heart on his sleeve. When he is happy, which is most of the time, everyone knows it and they are happy too. But when he is stressed out, everyone knows it – and they take cover. Employees see the anxiety in Bob’s face and hear it in his voice. They realize that staying out of his way is best. Bob becomes short tempered and sharp tongued, quick to deliver barbed comments. His wife observes that the sarcasm comes out in him frequently and it’s never in a nice way. He loses track of details which adds to the stress level when things start getting missed. Once the stress lifts, he finds himself needing to apologize for his comments and actions.
Here is the bad news.
Stress is part of the job of being a manager. As long as people are involved, you will have to find ways to manage the stress. Managers need to set the example and that includes being open about stress.
In the submarine world, there are very few places you can go and hide for even a minute or two. You learn to sublimate the stress and teach yourself an internal discipline that keeps it at the proper level for the moment.
In the civilian world, you can manage and control stress differently. Some key suggestions if you are feeling the pain include:
- Isolate yourself form the sources of stress for a few minutes (or longer). Go into your office and schedule some “quiet time” with your staff. Put the phone away, shut off the email, and take a few minutes to breathe deeply. Very slow deep breaths. Stress creates a physical condition that mimics the fight or flight syndrome. Your breath becomes shorter by nature as you prepare to be attacked. Taking a few minutes to balance that out will allow you to think more clearly.
- Be open with your employees and tell them that you are feeling stressed. Offer them a very brief explanation of why you are stressed. This allows them to understand the nature of this condition at this time.
- Try not to say things you will regret later or have to apologize for. The “count to ten” rule is actually a very good idea. By being uncontrolled in your responses, you may actually make the situation worse by escalating the conflict cycle unnecessarily.
- Remind yourself that this is a temporary situation. This too shall pass.
- It the stress is severe enough, give yourself a few days off if that is possible. The organization will survive and probably be better off without you imploding.
In the end, a lot of stress is caused by people.
Good managerial practice is to use every tool to capture the behaviors and be ready to address them with no emotional reflex. It’s the behavior, not the person. At that point, you can either change the behavior or liberate the person to do their life’s dreams if they refuse to accept the solutions. They will just have to pursue those dreams someplace else.
The team needs your leadership. The team relies on a steady and smooth course where creativity and success are the rules and not the exceptions. You can achieve neither if your sole focus is a daily process of struggling to get past self-induced stress.