Keep up with the latest hiring trends!
Over the next few months, we will be introducing our new Leadership Training authors on The Shortlist to uncover the various challenges facing new managers and how these challenges can be overcome. First-time managers often face significant stress as they move into their new roles. But they need to be able to deal with both their own individual stress and the stress of their team members. It can be quite a tall order.
So we invited Lianne Weaver, one of our new e-learning platform experts, to chat to us about this challenge. Lianne is a CPD-accredited well-being and personal development trainer.And she is also the Manager Director of Beam Development and Training, a company that delivers interactive well-being and resilience programmes, workshops, and speaking events. Together we discuss the causes of stress as a new manager and give practical advice on how stress can be managed in order to improve employee well-being and the culture of organizations.
In this episode:
- Lianne’s route to becoming a well-being trainer.
- The role of imposterism.
- Defining what stress is and how it manifests.
- The Five Fs – faint, flight, fight, freeze, fawn.
- How first-time managers can respond to stress.
- The importance of breathing.
- The stress cycle.
1. Stress impacts a very primitive section of our brains. Generations ago, stress was linked to very immediate, physical things, like a predator or the need to find shelter. Nowadays, our stress triggers are different, they’re more emotional or are linked to longer experiences. But our brain still reacts in the same way – increased heart rate, shallow breathing, adrenaline and cortisol released. And while these responses are useful when being chased by a beast, they’re not as pertinent for a first-time manager looking to impress their team or lead with clarity! The brain goes into survival mode, and it’s very difficult to be and act rationally when this is occurring.
2. Stress response: The Five Fs. According to Lianne, when we’re stressed, there are five natural responses our brains can take – faint, flight, fight, freeze, and fawn. While some of these seem obvious in a life-threatening situation, they also occur in the day-to-day. A person being tasked with public speaking may faint from the worry. Or flight could reference how people avoid certain situations or call in sick on important days. Fight is fairly straightforward – just think confrontation or argumentative. Freeze is akin to procrastination over the fear of a task that needs completing. And fawn relates to the act of people-pleasing in order to avoid difficult conversations or moments. These can all take place when someone is stressed and it’s important to recognize these behaviors.
3. Getting the prefrontal cortex to run the show. Lianne advocates many techniques to help managers deal with moments of stress. But the primary goal is to move activity from the primitive, limbic section of the brain, to the more rational and calm prefrontal cortex. And the best way to do this? Through breathing! Our breath is how our brain first detects if we are safe or in danger (think of the sharp gasp we take when in a threatening situation). The objective is to slow everything down. Breathe through the nose in a controlled, gentle manner and it helps us to focus on the present and confirm to the brain that we are safe. It is something so simple, but often forgotten.
Our guest’s final piece of advice:
Lianne opted to give a very practical piece of advice for our shortlist this week, inspired by a therapy technique known as havening. The goal is to create a sense of wellbeing through a series of motions and questions:
- First, you must score your stress level out of 10.
- Start rubbing your palms together.
- Ask yourself a series of questions while you do this – e.g. count backwards in another language, how many countries can you name beginning with ‘a’, list out six kinds of trees, etc.
- Pause and take a gentle breath in through the nose.
- Rescore your stress level.
Skip to [47.12] in the video below to see Lianne and Johnny try this technique!
- [3.02] Lianne’s introduction
- [12.38] Why first-time managers experience stress
- [15.51] How stress impacts the brain.
- [21.44] The Five Fs – faint, freeze, flight, fight, and fawn.
- [30.43] Moving energy from the limbic region to the prefrontal cortex.
- [34.14] The importance of breathing in managing stress.
- [39.33] The stress cycle.
- [47.12] Final piece of advice – the havening method.
You’re very welcome to 2023. My name is Johnny Campbell. I’m the host of The Shortlist and CEO, Co-founder of SocialTalent. And you’re welcome our live broadcast episode number 126, the first of 2023. Today we’re going to be talking about moving through stress as a first-time manager. Over the next few months, we’re going to be dealing with management and leadership topics, uncovering some of the challenges facing new managers, existing managers, managers of managers, and how to overcome those. And first-time managers, often face significant stress as they move into that new role from being an individual contributor to being somebody responsible for a team. And they need to be able to manage both their own stress with this new career move, but also the stress of their team members who have a new manager managing them, someone who perhaps hasn’t done it before, whom they may not have the most confidence in, all those things.
So if you’re planning to move into a managerial role for the first time, if you’ve been recently promoted to a manager, or you work with first-time managers, it’s worth asking yourself the question, how are you going to manage and move through the stress in the new role? Or how can you support somebody in that role? So joining us today on The Shortlist to chat about this is Lianne Weaver. She’s one of our new authors on the SocialTalent platform who’s developed content for our upcoming leadership solution, which launches fully later this year. She’s currently pursuing a masters and she’s CPD qualified. She’s accredited in wellbeing, personal development, leadership training, tons of different qualifications. In fact, a big passionate fan of education. And she’s the managing director of an organization called Beam Development and Training based in Wales and Cardiff. And that company delivers interactive wellbeing and resilience training programs, workshops, and speaking events for organizations across the UK.
We’re going to be digging in today to talk about the causes of stress as a new manager, give practical advice on both individual and team stress, and how it can be managed to improve employee wellbeing and the culture of the organizations. Lianne, you’re very welcome to show. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Thank you for having me, Johnny. I’m thrilled to be here. Happy New Year.
And many happy returns. I think we can still say that for a few more days! So maybe after this week, the Happy New Year police might stop us. Lianne, I know you’ve had a really interesting career. I mentioned your passion for education, you’ve worked in HR, you’ve worked in accountancy, and then you’ve gone back to the world of HR and training. Tell me a little about the career moves you’ve made and why, and how it’s led to you being here today.
Okay, so it’s quite a varied background really. I did a degree in education and psychology at Cardiff Uni, which I really enjoyed. And as I finished that degree, I thought that I wanted to be a play therapist, so working with children who were struggling through the medium of play. And I did a play therapy qualification, but at the same time, this was late 1990s, and I’d also left university and bought a house. Can’t even imagine being able to do that now! So I had a mortgage to pay and bills to pay. So when I left university, as much as I wanted to do play therapy, there was also the practicalities of paying the bills. So I started looking for a job, got a job in a finance company that was new and up and coming, and it was just growing.
So I think I was about the 40th employee, within a couple of years, we had about 400 employees. And it was in the heady, maybe we would probably now with hindsight also say highly irresponsible, days of irresponsible lending. It was a 125% loan to value company, so giving money to people that they weren’t sure they could ever pay back. But that actually meant as a part of that organization, that it was very frenetic, very busy. I was promoted into HR within a few months, and that enabled me to do a lot of recruitment, a lot of training, a lot of the policy formation as well. And I really loved it. They sponsored me to do my post grad in human resource management, and I thought that was going to be my career.
It was definitely a give it your all kind of organization. And I was doing 14-hour days, there was lots of social events expected at the end of it. And the MD took me out for lunch one day, and I can only really describe him as politically incorrect. And when we were out to lunch, he said to me, “Lianne, you’ve got such a bright future here. Just don’t get pregnant.” So little did I know that as fate would have it, I was actually pregnant at that lunch. So as soon as I found out I was pregnant, I was very aware that this wasn’t going to be the kind of environment that would enable me to have a really good work-life balance and be a mum, as well as working on my career. And as soon as I was pregnant, I also knew that I really wanted to be a mum. I wanted to be there for my daughter.
I was early twenties and naive. And so I just assumed that the first year of having a child would be really challenging, but then after that first year, it gets easier. Obviously now as the mum of a 22-year-old, I know that’s not the case. Definitely naive. So as time went on, and my daughter got a bit older, I realized that no, this wasn’t just 12 months of giving up my career. It was something I needed to work on. And as she went to nursery, I still needed to be around, there’s holidays, this illness. I did lots of jobs in that period to just bring in a bit of money. So I did fundraising and telephone appointment making. I did candle parties. You buy loads of candles and you try and flog them to your friends.
We’ve all done that, haven’t we?!
We’ve all done that! Yeah, it’s like a Tupperware party, but your house smells nicer!
And then I thought that I would go back to HR, but in those days, the idea of doing HR from home was just out of the question, you had to be where the people were. And I knew I couldn’t work full-time because I was the main person for my daughter. So I decided to retrain and I went through the alphabet and I only got to B, and I thought bookkeeping. Bookkeeping is something you can do from home. It doesn’t excite me one bit, but it’s something I can pick up and put down. I’m quite practical and sensible, so I’ll do that. So I did a bookkeeping qualification. And I love studying, so I carried on, did more bookkeeping qualifications, and then did the accounting technician qualification as well. And before I knew it, I’d set up a bookkeeping and accountancy practice. And everyone I ever met always said to me, “You don’t look like you work in accounts. This doesn’t seem like you.”
I absolutely love talking to people. And I’d have clients come and tell me all their problems, the arguments they had with their wife, the troubles they were having with their kids. I absolutely hated putting numbers in boxes, which makes you the money as an accountant. So I really hated that bit. But from the outside, I was doing really well, had a successful practice, had a four bed house, had a fancy car, I had lots of stuff. And on the inside I was really, really unhappy. And it was a really difficult time because I’d created this. And when everyone else says, “Oh, you’re doing well,” you think, “Well, I should be grateful for this.” But I knew it just wasn’t me. It just didn’t feel right. So very long story short, eventually in 2010, I pretty much left my life.
I left everything except for my daughter and my dog and started from scratch. So I had to claim benefits, I had to go into rented accommodation, having owned a home for a long time, and was in a really bad space. I thought I’d ruined my life in my early thirties, I thought that was the end of it. And eventually, had the universal shake that I needed to look at my daughter and think, “Well, I’ve got to be a role model for her. I’ve got to show her that I can do this.” So I started to go back to what I loved, which originally was psychology, and I started to read more books again. And I started to do courses that started really with more holistic therapy courses. So I did things like Reiki and aromatherapy and massage, and I started a holistic therapy practice. Very quickly realized I don’t like touching strangers.
So that wasn’t for me. But I very quickly also realized that most of the time, when people were coming to me, what they really wanted was to talk and be listened to. So I started to qualify in more talking therapies, so things like hypnotherapy and EFT and NLP and things like that. And I had a client come in and she said, ‘Oh, you really need to talk to my manager. He is into all this wellbeing stuff, come and have a chat to him,” which I did. And he said to me, “This is fantastic. You need to come and deliver a course. Do you write courses?” And I went, “Mm-hmm,” and it was that Richard Branson thing, say, “Yes,” and then work it out later. So I sent him details of courses. He picked one, they were all going to always be the same course, but I made them sound different.
And he invited me in, I delivered a course to a group within that company, had amazing feedback on that. And then was asked, “Okay, do you do more? Can you come back in and train another group?” And it grew. That was about 2014. And since then, I’ve really made it a lot more professional. The courses that we write now, we’ve got about 60 different courses on wellbeing and personal development. They range from 45 minute talks all the way up to six-week training programs that are quite intensive. Most of them are CPD accredited. We deliver in organizations all around the world, and that includes face-to-face training, online training, E-learning, video content, basically creating that content in a way that the companies and the learners want. And really whatever course we deliver, whether it is stress, whether it’s imposter syndrome, whether it’s confidence, every course always has to have the core message underneath that people will come on that course and not only be educated, but they will leave with practical tools and techniques that they can start using straight away.
So I think we’ve all done courses and thought, “That was interesting, but then I don’t know how to apply it to my life. So then I go back and do what I’ve always done.” And I really wanted to avoid that. So it’s always growing. I’m always growing. I’m still, as you alluded to, a prolific learner, constantly doing more courses and qualifications all the time because I think that’s really important for the quality and content that we deliver. And really encourage people to start to take ownership and responsibility for their own learning path and their wellbeing path as well.
I’d like to talk about a first time manager, as it’s a difficult time for somebody. They’re moving from what may have been a reasonably lengthy career or could have been a short career, where they only had to worry about their own work output. And all of a sudden, they’re given responsibility for 1, 2, 10 people, and now they’re their manager. And I want to talk about stress and your experience working with teams, working with people you’ve coached, trained, had on your courses. What are some of the stressors that an individual moving to that role, a first time manager, typically feels and why?
So the one that I would say I see most often at the moment is those feelings of imposterism. Those feelings of, “Oh my goodness, I don’t know how I got this role. I don’t really know what I’m doing.” And imposterism something I think we’re far more aware of now as well, and we’re more aware of admitting that we experience. And the whole notion of that concept is we are going to experience it so much more when we’re out of our comfort zone. So if I’ve done my job for five years and I’m really comfortable in it, I might think I don’t have imposterism anymore. It’s like, “Oh yeah, I got over that,” but it’s just because I’m comfortable. The second we go out of that comfort zone, that little voice starts to come in, “They’re all looking at me, they think I shouldn’t have this job. They think I’m not good enough. I think I’m not good enough.”
So that, I would say, is one of the first things that tends to appear. And then depending on the individual, is really how deep and impactful those thoughts and beliefs are. Now, lots of people can rationalize it, can manage, it can be open and honest about that, but lots of people carry shame and the feeling of not being good enough, which really is the main narrative to it. So we definitely see a lot of that. And then the other thing that I would say is almost equally as burdensome, stress causing, is all of a sudden I’m not just responsible for me. And managing those needs of a team that could be dealing with issues themselves, with the workload, issues with the fellow team members, but also the personal stresses that they bring in.
Particularly over the last few years, I think we can all agree, not just the pandemic, but just how our world has changed over the last three years, that that has caused a lot of personal stress as well. And the lines between work and home have become a lot more fuzzy, a lot more blurred. So taking that responsibility for other people when you feel a bit inadequate yourself, when you feel out of your depth, then becomes even more scary. You start to feel like you’re barely keeping your head above water.
I imagine for the team, the last thing you want is a stressed out manager. A stressed out manager is no good to anybody. So what are the typical techniques that early on, folks typically find themselves trying out, that perhaps don’t work? And then maybe you wouldn’t mind contrasting them with what tends to work. And do people get it right the first time, they immediately find out the things that work and start doing them and it’s all easy? Or what’s the typical journey someone takes?
Wouldn’t that be nice, in anything that we do, that we just get it right first time? But then I think we’d get bored if it was just easy and we just floated through it. So I think first of all, Johnny, it’s really important to understand how stress impacts us on a general level, to recognize our behaviors when we’re stressed. So stress is a modern day issue that we all deal with, but the way in which stress impacts our brain is still fairly primitive. So the way that our brain responds to stress takes place within a part of the brain called the limbic region, which is known as our primitive brain. It’s the part of our brain that hasn’t really changed all that much in thousands of years. But in thousands of years, we are living a very different life than those ancestors were all that time ago.
So thousands of years ago, our ancestors were stressed, but the stresses they faced were much more physical and imminent. So they had to worry about a predator, a rival tribe, getting sick, getting injured, safety, pretty much, getting enough food in. They were the things that caused stress. And what happens in the brain is as soon as we start to become aware of a stressor, something that is a threat to us, we start to trigger a stress response, which is our heart rate increases, our breathing changes, blood pressure elevates, and we produce stress hormones, things like adrenaline and cortisol. Now, if thousands of years ago I’m being chased by a predator, some savage beast jumps out of the woods, all of that response is really, really useful. We still have that wiring within us right now, but the kinds of stress we deal with now are much more likely to be emotional rather than physical
So the savage beasts we face now are, “I’ve got to speak at that meeting. I’ve got to do that interview. I’m stuck in traffic. I’ve got a bill that I’ve got to pay that I don’t have the money for.” So they’re a lot more complicated. Now, rationally, when we’re nice and calm, we know that generally they’re not life or death situations, but to the brain, as soon as we start to feel stressed about any of those things, then we lose all rationale. We go into the limbic region. If you’ve read Professor Steve Peter’s Chimp Paradox, it’s the chimp brain that starts to take over and all of a sudden, it’s as threatening as that savage beast. Me having to go and perform public speaking, go in for that interview, to handle that difficult parent teacher meeting that I’ve got to face, whatever it is, in that moment, if I’m stressed, to my brain, this is a life or death situation.
And so we still have that rush of adrenaline, the rush of cortisol, the heart racing, the breathing changing, and yet there’s no physical threat. Now the other thing to think about is when we are facing a physical threat, it’s over fairly quickly. So if a savage beast did jump out, there’s really only two options, I survive or I’m lunch. That that’s it, right? So either way, that’s over fairly quickly. You don’t tend to be chased by a savage beast for months, it tends to be over fairly shortly. So that stress response goes through the roof, enables me to survive to fight another day. And as soon as the beast is gone, I calm back down, my stress lowers, and I go back into rest and digest. If I’m worried about my new role at work, a difficult employee, paying a bill, my landlords giving me notice, all of those things, well, they’re technically savage beasts that can follow me round for months, maybe even years.
So my brain never gets to have that, “I’m safe,” and I’m constantly on high alert. So I’m constantly feeling under pressure in that life or death situation. Now, as a new manager, those sorts of threats are likely to be, “Well, I need to impress my manager because I’ve been given this role and I’ve got to prove that I’m good enough. I need to impress my team because I want them to respect me. Maybe I need to impress my family because hey, they didn’t think I would ever reach this, I’d never do anything with my life, and here I am in charge of this team. I need to impress myself,” those feelings of self-worth from imposterism. And all of those essentially are savage beasts that we create, that never really fully disappear.
So what that then does is puts the brain into a survival mode, even though rationally we know that it isn’t a survival situation. And as soon as the brain is in survival mode, we trigger the amygdala, which we know is better known as the fight or flight response. But actually, there are five ways that our brain generally encourages us to deal with a life threatening situation, and they’re called the five Fs of stress. So if I saw a savage beast, generally five ways I would deal with it. One is I might faint, so basically play dead. Humans don’t do it quite as much, but there are lots of animals in the animal kingdom who will play dead. So a gazelle will be chased, if the lion gets it, it plays dead, it faints. Lions aren’t scavengers, so they tend to poke it for a bit and then lose interest.
The lion walks off, the gazelle jumps up, lives to run through another day. So faint response. We’ve got the flight response, humans preferred stress response is to get the heck out of there. So we’ll run away if we can. We’ve got the flight response, so that beast is coming towards me, I can’t run away from it. So I’m going to pick up a big stick and start lashing out and shouting and screaming, hoping I can scare it off. All of us in some way, do the freeze response, even if it’s only for a few seconds. But the freeze response sometimes can ensure that the threat moves past us. So that beast might not know I’m there and I freeze and it walks past and whew, I’m safe. And then the fifth one is the fawn response. And the fawn response is generally when we make these subconscious quick calculations that we’re weaker than the threat, we’re slower than the threat, and there’s no way that we can pretend we’re not there.
And so we befriend the enemy. So that savage beast is there, it’s coming for me, I can’t escape. So I start throwing my sandwiches at it, “Look, don’t kill me because I’m a source of food, I’ll be your friend.” I start talking in a nice soft voice. I’m not threatening. “It’s okay. Here, kitty, kitty,” that sort of thing. That all works and all of that has saved all of us at some point in a threatening situation. But that is also what takes place anytime our brain is in that stress state. So as a new manager, I will still, if I’m really stressed, exhibit all five of those behaviors, but they become more office appropriate. So the faint response, again, is used very rarely. But I have worked with clients that every time they were asked to do some public speaking, they would have the microphone in their hands and bang, they’d fainted. I mean, it’s pretty effective because it’s a harsh manager that brings you round and then still makes you go and give the presentation anyway, so it gets you out of it.
I met a taxi driver once who told me that he used to work in business, as he called it, and he was sent to a different country to do a presentation. And he arrived at the presentation with 10 people around the boardroom table and the microphone was handed to him and he hid under the table. That again, the faint response, he just hit. Yeah, he wasn’t running away. He didn’t leave, he just slowed, silent and that was it. And went into faint mode. And you can find it hard to believe sometime, but it is a response that people like it or not, end up evoking.
And in their irrational minds, they wouldn’t do that. It’s when they’re in that irrational stress point. The freeze response, which possibly was a combination of that, we might freeze. So your manager says to you, “Right, you’ve got to conduct your first team meeting with your new team,” and you freeze. And that often looks like procrastination in the office. It looks like that person just always puts stuff off because really, if I just freeze, maybe the threat will move on by. Maybe someone will cancel the meeting, maybe someone else will chair it for me. So it looks like procrastination. The fight response, well hopefully in an office you’re not going to stand up and get physical with someone, but we all know those people who can be incredibly difficult, belligerent, confrontational in a situation. You ask someone, “Can you do this work for me?”
And then, Why are you asking me? I’ve got so much to do. Why are you always picking on me? Why are you always giving me extra work?” And then the manager pulls back because I don’t want that aggression. So the fight response looks more like confrontation and belligerence. We’ve then got the flight response. Now again, it’s unlikely that you ask someone to do something in an office and they jump up out of their chair and they just run out of there. But what the flight response tends to look like in an office is, “Oh, I’ve had an urgent call from home. I’ve got to go. I’ve got a meeting I forgot about,” or phoning in sick on an important day to make a presentation, that sort of thing. It’s avoidance, basically. And then we’ve got the fawn response, which probably is the one we may say we most commonly see in the office, but it’s not known as the fawn response, it’s known as people pleasing.
So the person that says, “Yeah, I’ll do it, give me that, I’ll take it on. Yep, yep, yep.” They overburden themselves. They overstress themselves, but they’re getting rid of the threat of the person who’s asking them the question. So it’s really interesting when we start to recognize that first of all in ourselves. So as a new manager, is there part of me that is constantly procrastinating? Is there part of me that is constantly trying to avoid stuff? Am I actually getting really angry with my team or belligerent? Am I people pleasing and trying to be everything to everyone? Because any of those behaviors indicate, what’s really going on is I’m super stressed, my brain is really starting to freak out about this. Equally, as a new manager, we can start to see that in our team members because we can get infuriated over that team member that always seems to have an emergency and disappears when there’s a big event going on.
Or the one who procrastinates or frantic and constantly saying yes. But again, those behaviors are indicating that those team members are stressed. And it’s quite a revelation when you realize that about your own response and the people around you. Now we will use all and every stress response, but generally we’ve all learned that there is one or two stress responses that have worked best for us, throughout our lives, and we tend to learn that as children. So I grew up with two big brothers, older than me and massive, one is 6’6, one is 6’3. So when I was having arguments with my brothers, I mean, fainting wasn’t an option, freezing isn’t an option because we live in the same house, running definitely not an option because they were huge. Fighting, I mean if I tried to hit them, they did that thing where they held my head and I was punching the air.
So I learnt to fawn. So I learned to read when the mood was about to change, when I was starting to annoy them or they were starting to get frustrated with me, and I would crack a joke or I’d share my sweets or I’d go and do something kind and helpful. And so I learned that that response then diffused the stress. You don’t learn that consciously, but it’s part of your subconscious programming. I then started to realize that I haven’t just done that growing up, I’ve done that all the way through my life. So with friendships with people, I was the friend that went along with things because I didn’t want to upset anyone. In intimate relationships, I went along with things because I didn’t want to upset anyone. As an employee, I took on the extra work and smiled and worked late at night and did all of that because I didn’t want to upset anyone.
And I thought, until I learned all this stuff, that people pleasing was a personality trait. It’s not a personality trait, it’s a stress response the same as procrastination, the same as avoidance, the same as confrontation, they’re stress responses. And when you recognize that in yourself, you can start to manage your stress a bit better.
I love that, understanding the brain, how the brain has those, I think you said five responses typically, why they materialize, recognizing it’s not a style, it’s just your default response and your style can be something you can control more yourself. And I want to ask you about the right way to do it, how when you block … Or not block, but when you recognize that this is a more instinctive response and you want to have a more controlled response, what to do. But I want to just bring in one of our live listeners at the moment. So on LinkedIn we’ve got EV Srinivasa Raju, and just give me some tips. And he talks about his advice, “While managers have targets to live up to, the trick is not to talk to your team only about the end outcomes, but it’s very important to see each team member as a unique individual and take the effort to understand the speed breakers which are different to different team members and see how you can release that stumbling block for the person, and also be an inspirational leader, which enables team members to uncover and elevate their potential and productivity.”
And great advice there, and thank you for that, and thanks for sharing. But I guess that type of advice requires somebody to recognize that their instinct is a stress response, and then to think about a strategy. Talk to me about the strategies that can work well for first time managers, that are effective and can reduce that stress and allow them to do their job.
Yeah, absolutely. So essentially what’s happening when we’re stressed, if we were in an FMRI scanner, we would generally see most of the brain activity is taking place in that limbic region, in this more primitive part of the brain. This part of the brain is emotional, irrational, makes knee jerk reactions, it’s great in a survival place, but not so great in the office. The part of the brain we really want running the show is called our prefrontal cortex, which sits just here. And the prefrontal cortex, again, if you’ve read Professor Steve Peters, The Chimp Paradox, that’s what he would call your human brain. Essentially it’s our higher brain, it’s the part of the brain that can be calm, rational, critical thinking. So when we’re in that stress space, we are going to make bad decisions because we’re going to make the quickest decision to solve the threat there and then, which isn’t ultimately the best decision in the long run.
So what we want to do is essentially get energy from that limbic region and into the prefrontal cortex. Now there are ways we can do that, so I’ll give you my favorite couple of ways. So the number one way to do that, I would say all of this only takes place once we have the self-awareness to recognize it, first of all. So we need that self-awareness to go, “Oh, hang on I’m losing it a little bit here.” But the number one way is actually really simple, it’s through our breath. So changing the way we breathe. Our breath is the first physiological way that our brain detects that we’re safe or we’re in danger, and we don’t necessarily realize it. So we take roughly 25,000 breaths a day, most of them passive. I doubt since we’ve been talking Johnny, you’ve paid any attention to a single breath you’ve taken, but you’ve definitely taken some, right?
I’m still breathing!
Now, even though your body’s been doing that and you haven’t consciously been aware, your subconscious brain has taken notice of, without breaking into song, every breath you’ve taken. So every breath you take tells your brain whether you are safe or in danger. So if for example, whilst we were on that call, all of a sudden there was a huge explosion, a huge bang. The very first thing you do in a split second is you go, “Huh,” and you hold your breath and you take that great big gasp and then you go into short, shallow, upper chest breathing. Now all of that sends a message to the brain that my environment isn’t safe, let’s prepare for fight or flight. Again, really useful in genuinely threatening situations, but that will also be taking place when an employee asks you a difficult question, when you’re asked to speak in front of people.
And then you go into that short, shallow breathing. So anytime that you feel stressed, I guarantee a hundred percent, your breathing will be reflecting that stress. You can’t do one without the other, which is good for us because a great way for us to move out of that limbic region and into the prefrontal cortex is to slow things down by breathing a little bit calmer. Really basic.
I could talk about breathing all day, but really basic rules to breathe in always through the nose. So your nose is designed for breathing, not your mouth. Your mouth is for eating and talking. So a great quote I heard was, “You should breathe through your mouth as often as you eat through your nose.” They’re completely different organs. So when we breathe through our nose, the brain, there’s lots of things that take place, but we’re talking about stress in the brain, so the brain ultimately hears that I’m safe. If you were running for your life, you’d be breathing through your mouth. So breathing through the nose tells the brain that I’m safe. Slowing down your breath. So often, when people start to become aware of taking deep breaths, they kind of go. That isn’t really going to calm anything down. So we want to slow down breath.
So I trained with Patrick Mckeown who wrote the Oxygen Advantage, in breath and he says, and it just stuck with me, “To control your breathing and calm your brain, you want to take a breath in as if you’re trying not to move your nostril hairs.” So it’s really calm and controlled. So you can have a look. I can see you are concentrating on that right now, Johnny. So really calm and controlled. All of a sudden by doing that, not only are there wonderful things going on through your respiratory system, but your brain’s starting to focus a bit more on the present moment, we’re starting to move activity from that limbic region into the prefrontal cortex. So simply just slowing it down and breathing like that, so not these great big take a deep breath things that often people advise, breathing through the nose, breathing really slow, really light.
So we’re trying not to do massive gasps. And as we do that, we will start to breathe from the lower lungs, not from the upper lungs. And the lower lungs, again, it triggers with our autonomic nervous system, triggers with the parasympathetic nervous system, which sends a signal to the brain that we’re safe. So really simple, but something we don’t often think to do, and a really great way to move the attention from the limbic region into the prefrontal cortex so I can start to be calmer. So that’s my number one thing I would suggest to do. The other thing I would suggest to do is to actually be honest about it. So if you’ve got a mentor, a coach, really good manager, really good colleague, to be honest about that. You are a new manager, so people shouldn’t expect you to be perfect, to come in and have the answers to everything. You are learning within that role.
And I would hope that the environment that you are in is aware of that and has support for that. Now if you can’t find that within the organization, I’d really encourage trying to find that through … There are other organizations externally that can offer coaching and mentoring to give you that support so you know it’s not just you. Because the other thing our brain loves to do is whenever we feel that we’re not performing or we’re doing something wrong, is our brain likes to tell us it’s only us that does that. I promise you, from years and years of helping thousands of people, we all do it. We can all be our own worst enemy. So to be honest about it suddenly starts to humanize you, make you realize, “Okay, I don’t need to be perfect.”
And quite often I’ll encourage people when I’m working with them on a coaching basis is to accept that in this moment, I’m doing the best I can. Now, next week I may know so much more that I can do it a hundred times better, but in this moment, I’m doing the best I can. So to give myself that comfort, reassurance, compassion, that I would hope I’d be able to extend to other people as well.
Do you find as a related technique to perhaps both of those, that it can also be helpful to literally take yourself out of the situation, to remove yourself or just ask for the time to make a decision? So that would allow you the time to perhaps practice breathing exercises, remind yourself that you’re only a new manager, et cetera. I’ve seen this with people I’ve managed and worked with as well, that the best ones acknowledged, to your second point, that this is a stressful situation, are aware, have that self-awareness to say, “I’m not going to make the best decision if I just make it right now,” and would ask for time, would ask for a meeting to end and then come back and say, “Okay, I had time to think about this,” or relax or would just ask for a few minutes or maybe ask for a day. Is that something you’d advocate, or you’ve seen work well?
Definitely. I mean if we are feeling threatened, in order for the energy to move from the limbic region and back into the prefrontal cortex, it takes a minimum of 20 minutes after we believe the threat is gone for us to start to click in our rational brain. Which is why if you have overreacted to someone and if you’ve snapped and said something in anger, it’s a little while later when you think, “Oh my goodness, I shouldn’t have said that. I took it the wrong way.” So roughly 20 minutes. And what does that, is being removed from that stress situation. Now I mentioned before about how we’ve got multiple beasts chasing us and how primitively you’d have one beast chase you, you’d either survive or you’d beaten. And that whole process is actually called the stress cycle. So there’s three parts to the stress cycle.
So the first is we sense a stressor, so it’s a beast. So I start to then trigger the second part, which is the stress response, which is one of those five Fs and all of the physiological and psychological responses. And then I run away from the beast. I start screaming to my tribe to come and save me. They start running forward, throwing spears at the beast, and we survive. And so then I hug my tribe, we laugh, I cry, I shake, we dance. And that is actually a really crucial part to stress because what that does is it completes the stress cycle. So the three components are sensor stressor, trigger stress response, complete the stress cycle. What we don’t have with a lot of our modern stresses is ever that completion phase. So I sense the stressor which is going to work. So I have the stress response, just being in the office is my stress response, and I feel anxious and stressed and want to run away. And I might leave at the end of the day.
I might have a week off even. But my mind keeps going back to, “I’ve got to return, I’ve got to go back and face that.” And so my brain can never really fully stand down. We might do it for a couple of days, but I go straight back to it. So there’s brilliant research collated by the Nagoski sisters who wrote a fantastic book called Burnout. And they talk about this and they said that there are six research backed ways in which we can complete the stress cycle, we force complete it. Now one of the main ways is breathing, which we’ve already talked about. We then have running. So your brain wants to run. A human being’s preferred stress response is running. So those of you who love running will probably already know how much that benefits you lowering the stress response.
If you are not a runner, then actually the research has found that any kind of exercise that gets you to the point where you, is enough. So you can do star jumps, you can dance around your kitchen, you can play with the dog, whatever it is. So physical exercise that takes you to that point of, completes the stress cycle. Crying. So having a good cry. We tend to block ourselves and stop ourselves, but actually crying is a key part of that stress cycle, as is laughing. So many of us think we’re inappropriate because when something bad happens, we start to get giggles and we start to feel. But it’s a way of releasing that stress that’s built up. Creating. So doing something creative. So gardening, painting, sewing, playing music, uses completely different parts of the brain. So the brain starts to believe that it’s safe.
And then the last one is a hug, or in Wales we would call it a cwtch. But a hug is really, really powerful. So a 20-second hug releases oxytocin, which is that feelgood love chemical we can produce. If you’re not a huggy person, you don’t like hugging people, actually you can hug a pet, you can hug a pillow, you can even just hug yourself, and it has the same effect. And if you think of it, go back to that tribe situation, we’ve survived the beast, we probably would’ve hugged each other. That’s how we would’ve reassured ourselves. So those six ways are fantastic tools to help complete that stress cycle which we could all take on board. What am I doing at the end of a stressful day to just show my brain that right now I’m safe. And you can play with them, some will work better for some people, some will work better at some times than other times. But those six ways absolutely will signal to your brain that you are safe, that it’s okay to stand down.
Lianne, you have schooled me here today and hopefully on this note as well. I love the approach. I love the five Fs. I love the three elements of stress, how to work with just bringing it back to the science and the data, how our brain works, normalizing it, explaining it, rationalizing it, giving us the coping mechanisms, the techniques. You’ve been absolutely wonderful. You reminded me in your last comment of a good friend of mine, Dave Hazelhurst, who many might know as Google Dave, who is a big believer in the 20-second hug, to release that on everything else. Not everyone is a big fan of it, I’m going to just put it out there. And over the last three, four years, hugging strangers has become less appropriate, or considered less appropriate in work settings. I love a hug, I love giving a hug, a good hug.
Lianne, I can’t believe I’m being so cheeky as to ask you for more. We’re out of time. You’ve given us so much and such an education here today. But I’m wondering if you could perhaps reflect on a more general piece of advice you might be able to leave our audience with here today. Something that’s been passed down to you by somebody else or you’ve garnered through your own experience through your career, to add to our Shortlist, to add to the other a 124, 125 pieces of advice we’ve received over the years.
Okay, so I was originally going to give a bit of advice that taps on to managing the stress because I think that that’s really important. So I might stick with that, Johnny, because I think-
No. Go with what you have said, yeah.
So I mean you’ve probably guessed, I can talk for days and spit out as much advice as you want, but I think to finish on a practical tool might be a little bit more helpful. So one of the therapies that I’ve recently qualified in is something called Havening. And you might have heard of Havening, it’s relatively new therapy based on neuroscience and by the Ruden brothers. It was brought across to the UK by Paul McKenna and it has an amazing impact. Now, I won’t go through all the science of Havening, but we can steal a little Havening technique to manage stress. So what I would encourage you to do, and you can do this with me Johnny, I know we’re not stressed right now, but we can just see what-
Pause Lianne and reflect. I went on mute because I had a four-year-old trying to beat down my door to get in here for about five minutes of the recording. So I had a little bit of stress as we were recording today! So I’m okay with this. Let’s go.
Okay, so what I would encourage you to do is first of all, score your stress. So just okay, where is it at the moment, out of 10? It’s always arbitrary, but it’s your score, so don’t share it or anyone. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to start rubbing our palms together, almost as if you are rolling a ball of plasticine. So just rubbing them and we’re just going to keep rubbing them. And then whilst we’re rubbing them, I want you, and I’m going to really test you now, Johnny, I want you to count backwards from 56, in eights.
Okay. 56, 48, 40, 32, 26, 18, 10, 2. I got it wrong there, I think. Did I?
That’s okay. It was a little bit, but it’s okay. And now I want you to name five capital cities.
Dublin, London, Stockholm, Amsterdam, New York. Not New York. Not New York!
Okay. And now five different types of trees.
Oh, fur, pine, ash, Christmas!
You can have that one. And can you count in any languages?
Just take a little pause, breath through the nose, and then just check back in and see what that score is right now.
Definitely less, definitely less.
So we’ve talked quite a bit about the neuroscience of stress, and what we’ve done there is we’ve forced all the energy from the limbic region into the prefrontal cortex. So we forced our brain to think of random things that only the human brain would think about. Your chimp doesn’t care about any of that. Now it’s a really useful tool that you can use at any time. You can use it on your own. I will often go through the alphabet to make sure I do it, so countries or places beginning with A, B, C. And you always find that by the end of it, your stress levels have come down. And you can do it as often as you like, you can’t use it too much. So it’s a nice little practical tool to put in your toolkit anytime, whether it’s work, home, four-year-old children banging on the door. You can at least use that tool to just bring your stress levels down before you then go and respond.
I love that. We’ve got another piece of advice from one of our listeners saying, “Best way to get rid of stress is by saying this to yourself, ‘I get to do this,’ instead of saying, ‘I have to do this.'”
I’ve got to, yes.
Definitely brilliant advice.
Lianne, thank you so much.
Pleasure. Thank you for having me.
The Shortlist is a workplace, thought-leader focused talkshow that broadcasts every Wednesday. You can watch it live on LinkedIn and on YouTube. Or, why not stream as a podcast after?