That Business of Stress…


…or the stress of that business, as an intimate relationship exists between the two. And with ample justification. How?

Stress is by definition a perception that one’s available resources are insufficient or poorly matched to successfully face a challenge or a threat. Business, by definition, is a purposeful activity or endeavor that is a source of personal concern, usually engaged in as a means of livelihood.

When engaged in a business that is a personal concern, where we may endeavor to earn a living,  and in which our capital resources (our finances, physical and mental abilities, time, image, and self-concept) need to be allocated and expended to adequately meet the demands of the business we are engaged in, the potential for stress is always there.

Stress in business is of the same kind as the threat of a saber-toothed tiger—not the same, but of the same kind. Let’s see how. When face to face with the feline, our body instantly springs into full mobilization mode. The heart rate goes up, respiration increases in depth and frequency, muscles tense, pupils dilate, the stomach contracts, and adrenaline and other excitatory hormones are released into the bloodstream. We are faced with three possible choices: fight, flight or freeze.

When face to face with a business challenge of a serious nature (loss of a major client, a sudden promotion, the loss of a job, a major breakthrough), our body instantly springs into full mobilization mode, with the same biological changes as when in a close encounter with the cat. The threat or challenge may be very different, with linoleum under our feet instead of savanna grasses, but the body doesn’t care—a threat is a threat is a threat. We are faced with the same three possible choices: fight, flight or freeze. Even when we tell ourselves we are not going to die, the body can’t help but to prepare for the worst.

This state of affairs has existed for a while now. Very little of what we do at work involves a physical threat. Our chances of being killed by wildlife or to compete with the tiger for our lunch are abysmally small. The last saber-toothed tiger became extinct sometime between the Oligocene to the Pleistocene Epoch. Yet, we humans continue to be instinctively and instantly mobilized when we perceive a threat of any kind. Which is a good thing.

The goodness of stress is undeniable. Many more of our would-be ancestors would have been killed, had they not perceived the arrival of the big cat as a possible threat. A great many probably did get killed when they chose the option to freeze. Others got killed while exercising their option to fight. And still others were not fast enough to take full advantage of the option to flee. To be sure, one hundred percent of those who saw no threat in the approaching tiger and lingered to consider the size of her teeth, or in other words, those who felt no stress in the situation, were swiftly eliminated from the genetic pool by a process of natural selection.

General Motor and Chrysler executives must have felt pretty safe from the saber-toothed tigers of competition and market change, because up until the last minute they felt no real stress from their falling sales (except for SUVs) and dwindling customer base (except for SUV buyers). How many people lost their job and never saw it coming? Or saw it coming and froze? Or didn’t flee soon enough, or did not fight for change? Stress told Ford executives to come up with a plan, a better plan as it turns out. One wishes that GM and Chrysler executives had felt a little bit more stressed out, a bit more mobilized into action, less complacent and relaxed.

Stress is a bright amber light on the dashboard of our life that simply says, something requires your attention. Often, the light is right.