Rob Cross, Senior vice president of research at the Institute for Corporate Productivity
Small moments of stress take a cumulative toll but authentic relationships can help immensely in beating them, says Rob Cross, the co-author of The Microstress Effect: How Little Things Pile Up and Create Big Problems—and What to Do about It. Cross is also the senior vice president of research at the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), the Edward A Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Q. How is ‘microstress’ different from the kind of ‘stress’ we usually talk about? Microstress is a term we created to describe a phenomenon we were seeing in our research but didn’t have language for. Microstresses are moments of stress, triggered by the people in our professional and personal lives, that are so routine that we barely register them, but whose cumulative toll is debilitating.
Conventional stress is big, visible, and obvious to all—think about dealing with a major health issue, losing a job, or a death in the family. By contrast, microstress is far less obvious. We don’t always see it, and even when we do, we don’t necessarily think it’s affecting us. For example, it might be triggered by a well-intended boss who shifts your priorities. Or having to put in a little extra time to finish a joint project when two of your teammates fall just slightly short on their part. Each individual stressor seems manageable in the moment. But cumulatively we are hit with too many of these today. And they can also create ripple effects of primary, secondary, and sometimes even tertiary consequences that can last for hours or days.
Q. How do these small pressures affect our neural circuits? The process by which we normally respond to stressors is called allostasis, the biological mechanism that protects the body from internal and external stress. Allostasis helps us maintain internal homeostasis, or internal balance. Our brains know how to register conventional forms of stress, so you can identify the threat and use “fight or flight” mechanisms to deal with it. But we often are not consciously aware of microstresses although they have the same physical impact as more recognised sources of stress— increased blood pressure and heart rate as well as hormonal and metabolic changes. Our brains do not register them fully as a threat and, as a result, don’t trigger protective higher order mechanisms that occur in the face of more obvious stress.
Q. What’s its ripple effect on workplace productivity and creativity? We have a story in our book about how a single email from the head of marketing catapulted Rita, a high performer, into a spiral of panic. It asked people to create materials for an upcoming presentation. Lacking detail, the request left everyone with similar questions: When does he need to see them? Slides or talking points? Importantly, what’s the story he wants to tell? That one email spurred hours of stress across the entire organisation. Ninety minutes later, Rita realised she had dealt with 34 emails asking for direction or complaining about the request. That meant not only that Rita didn’t get the work she had intended to get done that night, but she was also late for dinner and missed the chance to have a conversation with her teenage son, who she had been worried about lately.
Q. How can we stay clear of confrontational conversations and negative interactions? We don’t always recognise the subtle forms of confrontational conversations that have become part of how we work these days, triggered by competing incentives or goals, missed performance expectations, or personality or work-style differences, for example. You may respond badly in the moment when a colleague springs on you that she’s missed a deadline. Your manager might seem unnecessarily brusque with you in a meeting, and you start wondering if you’ve done something to make him angry or you have somehow fallen out of favour. But that moment will surely trigger roiling emotions for the rest of the day. Even when confrontations aren’t major, they can add up so that we are simply less able to handle those that come later in the day in a balanced and effective fashion. The key to mitigating microstress is understanding that it comes from the interactions—not necessary the people you are working with.
You can make these interactions better with a bit of thought. Focus on what you can control. Try to initiate a conversation rather than avoid talking. Focus on and establish facts. First, review how you or the context is creating the conflict and what can be done; then move to what the person can do—no matter how frightening, don’t avoid having this specific conversation. And finally, fight replaying the interaction by yourself or with others—all you will do is magnify points you worry over. Check back in with the other person with an offer of resource or to share progress on your commitment. This helps ensure that the discussion stays focussed on the work.
Q. How does it play out in a remote work environment? Trust develops in relationships in surprising but predictable ways. This doesn’t require doing off-site retreats with trust falls and other team-building exercises. Leaders can intentionally help to build trust in virtual work by maintaining one-on-ones with 50 percent of the discussion off task or opening team meetings with lite discussions that help people connect personally. They can also help teammates build competence-based trust—a belief in someone’s abilities—by profiling peoples’ expertise in discussions or helping them situate their expertise to others’ needs. Where too many people fall short is thinking only of the importance of personal trust and assuming it only develops in face-to-face forums rather than architecting the kinds of needed interactions in the course of work.
Q. What are some of the strategies to push back on microstress? We ask people to do three things:
1. Identify two or three microstresses you can push back on. Simply altering interactions, increasing time between the interactions, or possibly disconnecting in some way can have a major impact on your overall well-being.
2. Identify two or three microstresses you are unnecessarily causing others. Not only will eliminating these help your colleague or your team, but you will also reduce the microstress on yourself because the microstress we unnecessarily cause others almost always boomerangs.
Q. What’s the ‘power of others’ in building resilience? Conventional thinking tells us that resilience is something we have to find within ourselves when we are tested. Or we can build it through solitary pursuits, such as mindfulness or self-care. We have found another source through our interviews. Our resilience is also bolstered by the relationships in our lives, both personal and professional. A well-developed network of relationships can enable us to rebound from setbacks by helping us manage surges at work or at home, providing empathic support so we can release emotions and stay balanced, giving us perspective when setbacks happen, enabling us to unplug and take a break from challenges, and so on.
Q. What do top performers do differently to integrate work and life? The happiest people in our interviews are those who consciously build meaningful connections with people into their day-to-day lives in ways that help them rise above much of the “noise” of microstress and focus on what really matters most to them. This didn’t mean they were extroverts who found time to keep up with a wide range of friends and social connections. The common thread is dimensionality—building and maintaining connections with a variety of people, often in small ways. Done right, such relationships can become a kind of “force field” against the inevitable barrage of microstress. That requires you to take deliberate actions, daily, but also crucially at critical transition periods in your life so you don’t default into a defensive posture of simply absorbing the stress coming at you.