Have you lost your temper today? This week? Most of us would be lying if we said no to both of them. There are lots of things that trigger us to lose that enviable state of calmness and composition. Driving to work last week I became enraged when someone broke down in front of me and caused a big queue. Yes, I was livid when something fairly unpredictable happened to someone I didn’t know, and which caused me only a minor inconvenience. Such losses of composure come at unexpected times, and are often when there are bigger, more important issues bubbling around in your mind for you to worry about.
The workplace is a major site of stress. Think of the times recently when you have been most stressed — how many are at work? A few I bet.
Some industries, however, are admittedly more stressful than others. CareerCast has produced a ranked list of jobs in 2015 according to their stressfulness. It takes into account factors like the amount of travel, being in the public eye, physical demands, competitiveness etc.
Here’s the top ten:
2. Enlisted Military Personnel
3. Military General
4. Airline Pilot
5. Police Officer
8. Event Coordinator
10. Newspaper Reporter
Do you agree with this list? No doubt you have plenty of reasons why your job should rank more highly.
CareerCast have also analysed data to produce a list of the least stressful jobs too. (No offence intended if one of these jobs is yours and you’re actually having a really stressful day — if you keep reading I’ll tell you how to de-stress, promise)
1. Hair Stylist
3. University Professor
4. Medical Records Technician
6. Medical Laboratory Technician
10. Forklift Operator
Getting back to the topic of leadership, the ability to stay level-headed throughout periods of pressure, whilst still managing to get results is a quality that only the very best leaders show. However it is one which is key to effectively managing a great team. Top leaders think with their head rather than their heart –they act strategically and with consideration, mostly coming to a resolution that is in the best interests of the business, as opposed to making reactionary, rash decisions.
But how can you actually become more calm and composed? And what causes us to become angry, stressed or lack assertiveness?
Recent research by the Business Schools of both Columbia and Harvard has shown that effective leaders demonstrate certain biological characteristics that are different to their more volatile and less assertive counterpart. Great leaders show high levels of testosterone combined with low levels of cortisol in their bloodstream. To put this into context testosterone, a steroid hormone secreted in both males and females, is associated with assertiveness; and cortisol, another steroid hormone, is associated with stress (it helps the body prepare for its “fight or flight” mechanism). Therefore, high testosterone levels combined with low cortisol levels can be associated with assertive, composed and calm behaviour.
The institutions’ research has also show that it is possible to use muscles in the body to manipulate hormone levels. It has been demonstrated that, by posing, the muscles trigger the brain to produce the desired hormones.
However, before you start Googling images from fashion shows for attractive poses to pull, a specific type of pose has been shown to be highly effective – and it’s nothing particularly attractive. In fact, the pose has been observed with primates in the wild to demonstrate a victory or when trying to intimidate an enemy.
It’s not just our simian cousins though; champion athletes often perform “The Power Pose”, as dubbed by scientists. Next time you watch some sport on TV, watch the winners. They will mostly throw their arms into the air and push their chest out. Even blind athletes in the Paralympics do this, despite never actually seeing it being done.
For proof, have a watch of this video from the London 2012 Paralympics. Following a sensational sprint and a world record broken, look at the reaction of the winner, Terezinha Guilhermina. (Skip to 2 mins 30 for the race)
Studies have shown that maintaining this position for two minutes can increase testosterone production and reduce cortisol levels. In other words, your muscles acting on the brain can manipulate the calm and assertive leader. Also, conversely, two minutes of keeping your arms tight by your side and your legs tight together will have the opposite effect, with cortisol increasing and testosterone reducing. Therefore, you can also trigger a lack of assertiveness and calmness by greater stress through the position of your body. The next time you have something important on the horizon — a big presentation, a speech, a pitch, a meeting — allow yourself a couple of minutes to go somewhere private and strike a “Power Pose”. You may seem silly but, as long as no one walks in on you, you might end up being a little bit calmer and more assertive.
So there is some science behind the theory that better leaders are calmer, more reasonable and more assertive — the proportion of testosterone to cortisol is higher. And we’ve also seen a quick-fix solution to become more assertive: to act like a primate(if you’ve skim-read this article then that might sound strange).
Admittedly that’s quite a rudimentary solution though. Surely there’s something more established?
Let’s have a look at what some famous leaders have done to stay calm, productive and efficient. Figures such as Bill Clinton, Rupert Murdoch, Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey all have a particular method in common: mindfulness — i.e. the art of meditation.
If you’ve never come across mindfulness before here’s a brief definition: mindfulness is a head and body approach to wellbeing that can change the way you think about experiences in order to reduce stress and anxiety.
And it’s not as if some big-name companies don’t endorse the method. The Huffington Post has a meditation room at its head offices, and The Bank of England included taster meditation sessions for its staff as part of a series of ‘working life seminars’.
Google has used an internal mindfulness programme called Search Inside Yourself since 2007. Search Inside Yourself’s owner Chade-Meng Tan says this about the process of mindfulness:
“What if people can use contemplative practices to help them succeed in life and at work? In other words, what if contemplative practices can be made beneficial both to people’s careers and to business bottom lines?”
Sounds great right? Succeeding in life is probably top three in the agenda of most people.Whether you see yourself as someone who could use mindfulness in the daily life or not, it wouldn’t hurt to give it a go. This presentation takes you through the basics of mindfulness at work, and gives some tips and tricks so you can become more mindful.
Being calm and reasonable is just one characteristic of a great leader, but it is one that has one of the most direct effects on the people who depend on you. High-stress, high demand jobs are most likely to cause a leader to lose their cool, but it’s knowing both the reasons for, and ways to combat, the stress that is key. So, if you happen to walk into a public toilet and see someone standing in front of a mirror, with their arms above their head and their chest puffed out like a baby bird, approach with caution and wish them luck for their big day.