As the president of Lindsay Construction, Cory Bell is often stressed. And his stress usually stems from crisis management. Those crises come in many forms: a client with a concern, a snag in one of the company’s tender packages, or the state of a particular construction job. In many cases, the problem is brought to him for resolution.
“I’m supposed to get through the issue very, very quickly, and provide insight and guidance to the party, whether that’s internally or externally. That (is my) biggest stress: the expectations of others on me to respond to those crises,” he says.
Stress is a workplace constant, particularly at the executive level. In early March, Bell was one of about 50 business types and executives who gathered for a breakfast seminar in Halifax entitled “The Truth About Stress.”
The two-hour talk was delivered by Bill Crawford, a psychologist, professional speaker and folksy Texan who claims he has not suffered a major stress in four years.
The last incident took place in Athens, Greece. Crawford was on vacation with his family when his wallet was nabbed while he was riding the subway. The wallet was pinched from his back pocket, even though his wife had warned him about keeping his cash, ID and credit cards in such an obviously vulnerable spot. Crawford was enraged, both because of his own stupidity and the hassle involved with cancelling his credit cards and scrounging a new ID.
“I wanted to get a policeman to search people. It was ridiculous,” he says of his 15-minute mini-meltdown. “When I was walking back to the hotel I saw my kids watching me do these crazy things and thought: what am I teaching the people I love? That was the beginning of me shifting.”
By “shifting” Crawford means he decided to view the source of his stress differently, and to react in a way he could be proud of, a manner that would serve as a good example to his kids.
Crawford’s method for dealing with stress is rooted in the interaction between what he calls the three basic parts of the brain. It goes something like this: information about outside stimuli (e.g. a traffic jam, deadline or annoying boss) is relayed to the middle part of the brain, the limbic system, which Crawford says acts as a “scanner, a processor and a router.” Often, the limbic system routes potentially stressful information to the lower 20 per cent of the brain, the brainstem, an area “hyper sensitive to threat and fear and danger.” It’s in the brainstem that our fi ght-or-fl ight reaction originates, he notes. Thus information channeled to the brainstem usually triggers major stress.
“It worked really well when we were walking through the jungle and heard the roar of a sabre-toothed tiger. It helped us stay safe,” he says in an interview, seated in a chair overlooking Halifax harbour at a downtown hotel. “But now so few of our experiences are true fight-or-fl ight in nature, yet we’re still reacting in that old fight-or-flight way.”
Crawford’s solution is this: we must train our limbic systems to send potentially stressful information north, to the upper 80 per cent of the brain — the neocortex. “It’s what I call the top of the mind, where we have access to our interpersonal skills, our problem solving skills, our clarity, confi dence, creativity, and compassion,” he explains. “All those things that help us be successful in life.”
For most people, potentially stressful information too often flows to the brainstem through wellestablished neuro-pathways. “It’s like a pathway in the woods. We’ve gone down it so much that it’s wide and it’s easy to find and easy to go down,” Crawford says. “We have to start creating new neuro-pathways.”
So how does one do that? In part by looking at our reaction to stress in a new way. When stress fills us with anger, frustration and anxiety, Crawford recommends posing a series of questions, including: Would I teach or recommend this thought, emotion, or action to someone I care for? Stress, he says, is simply a chemical reaction – one we can overcome.
“Stress is a signal something needs to change. It’s not the problem. It’s part of the solution.”
Crawford, who has a PhD in psychology, has been developing his ideas for 25 years. He gives his presentation once or twice a week, often to CEOs, executives and business leaders, but also to teachers, and at hospitals and churches. “I have yet to meet a group that is not stressed on one level or another,” he reports.
Joe Gillivan, of The Executive Committee (TEC), which organized Crawford’s talk, says stress is a recurring subject at TEC Canada meetings, where member executives gather to discuss their ideas, challenges and opportunities.
“Stress is a common theme,” Gillivan says. “Some people deal with it better than others. They know what’s triggering stress, but they don’t always know how to deal with it.”
Stress, Gillivan admits, sometimes takes him to “the dark space.”
“I can be judgmental. And I need to change that. And the way I can do that is by asking better questions,” he adds. “What Bill showed is that there’s a science behind stress and you have the opportunity to shift in the moment from being angry to being compassionate.
“We’re always going to have stress in our life. But we can choose how we react to it.”
Cory Bell, one of TEC’s 750 member executives in Canada, also plans to change his approach to stress. Specifically, the engineer and company president plans to change his outlook when coworkers bring problems to his already crowded desk.
Instead of lamenting, “Why me?,” Bell says he’ll take pride in the fact that he can help, and that his expertise is being sought out.
“The reason they’re asking me is because I’m knowledgeable, I provide insight, I have experience, and they value my opinion. I’ll use that to trigger a positive response,” he says. “Rather than being irritated (I’ll) deal with those situations a little more thoughtfully.”