Finding your environmental set point
Right fielders and real estate agents both know the secret of success: location.
“I’m sorry, but I need to take the next plane home.”
The CEO looked across the table with characteristic calm as one of his most talented and promising young executives dropped a bombshell.
“I’ve really tried, but I can’t possibly keep up this pace any longer,” he continued. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to do tomorrow’s presentation on your own.”
After enduring weeks of grueling travel and last-minute preparations for important presentations, the executive finally had enough. An ominous pattern of unmistakable signals from his body could no longer be ignored. As promised, he flew home the following morning and spent the next two weeks recovering from the ordeal, uncertain of what his future held.
How did it get to this point? As a trained neuropsychologist and certified executive coach, I’m frequently approached by overworked leaders and harried business partners who are desperately seeking easy and effective techniques to help them cope with and hopefully reduce the extraordinary amounts of stress they face in their jobs.
Make no mistake: such techniques exist. And in the right context they can often be very effective. But applying them in isolation is like treating the symptoms but ignoring the disease.
Baseball fans thrill at plays where an outfielder leaps into the air at the last minute and robs a hitter of a home run or where he sprints forward just in time to make a catch at his shoe tops, preventing a hit that would otherwise have led to extra bases. It’s natural to marvel at these breath-taking plays. And yet it’s the “routine” catches that truly prove that a player is a pro. What makes those easy catches look easy is the fact that professional athletes know exactly where they need to be in order to perform at their best. They’re experts not because they can run faster or leap higher, but because they have an ability to put themselves in precisely the right spot.
The same applies to successful business executives. Succeeding in business and succeeding in baseball are both fundamentally about positioning. To take full advantage of your strengths, you must do everything you can to find your optimum working conditions. I call this your “environmental set point.”
An alarming number of people tolerate relentless stress because they fail to structure their environment in a way that enables them to thrive. Others endure years of mind-numbing boredom because they’re under the mistaken impression that they have no alternative. Your environmental set point is your performance home base. It’s the set of conditions that put you in the strongest position to respond to the challenges that you’re faced with in the workplace. When it comes to these optimum working conditions, there is no one-size-fits-all. The very same factors that left the young executive feeling worn down and stressed out were actually energizing and motivating his boss.
Turning a stressful job into a rewarding one can sometimes be a simple matter of fine-tuning your working conditions to match your individual profile. Often just a few key alterations to your circumstances can make a dramatic difference. Adjusting your hours, changing where you work, or redistributing responsibilities with coworkers can all help. Designing a schedule that allows you to get regular exercise and sufficient sleep can do wonders for your brain and with it, your overall attitude and performance. Talk about your needs with your superior and with your colleagues. A candid conversation about the kinds of tasks or situations that leave you feeling over stressed or under motivated can be highly beneficial.
If you don’t initiate these changes yourself, they are unlikely to be made. The CEO might never have realized that the pace he was setting was actually harming his colleague’s performance until the young executive felt the need to take drastic action. Don’t let things reach that point. Ultimately, you are the master of your fate and must be the one to take control.
In some circumstances, a sudden two-week absence might’ve proven to be a career-ending move. But the executive used the hiatus to think carefully about his optimum conditions for peak performance and to propose them to his boss. Too much travel and not enough time for preparation were identified as the principal causes of the executive’s stress. The two agreed that he would limit his traveling to no more than three days per week and that when called upon to deliver a presentation that he’d be given sufficient time for preparation.
These two changes fundamentally altered the executive’s environment. They eliminated most (but not all) of his sources of stress and led to an impressive improvement in his performance. Not only did his boss not fire him for his sudden absence, he ultimately wound up promoting him to head one of the company’s key business units.