How to keep a clear head in a high stress situation
Visibility of the path ahead is something we depend upon more than we know. Without it, like walking in fog, each step forward carries the risk of falling into a hole that’s hard to get out of. According to author Carole Osterweil, this is what it can be like for teams working on complex projects. Conditions change unexpectedly and quickly, and it takes a clear head to be able to make progress. But as this book reveals, at the very time when we need to think, our brains can freeze due to the high levels of stress that come from uncertainty and risk. Project success depends on our ability to manage our response to stress and uncertainty.
And that’s where the neuroscience comes in.
It turns out that the problem is our subconscious fight or flight response that kept our prehistoric ancestors safe from marauding dinosaurs. Unfortunately, in the 21st century workplace that threat response can have the effect of seriously undermining the whole team. Carole’s premise is that by understanding how the brain works, how to recognise that stress response and prevent it turning into disruptive behaviour, project leaders will be better able to lead the team effectively towards a successful outcome.
Neuroscience: what you need to know
Thankfully, this book doesn’t require a degree in psychology to understand. What I like about Carole’s approach is that she makes neuroscience accessible. There’s just enough science, explained clearly and concisely, to tell you what you need to know.
The focus of the book is on delivering results, providing frameworks and techniques to apply. Within 24hrs of reading it I’m already thinking how the SCARF framework can help me to re-engage and motivate a team that I have inherited.
The chapter structure was a problem for me. It leaps straight into a primer on neuroscience before really making the case for why this is important and worth reading. It’s only late in Part 2 that we find out the problem that this book is aimed at addressing: that traditional project management approaches don’t work in complex project environments. Expecting to be able to anticipate risks and manage them away will lead to the stress that can spiral into dysfunctionality. Leaders need to have a different mindset and toolset to operate with risks that are unknown until you stumble into them.
A life skill for all
I know the book is targeted at leaders of complex projects, but IMHO I think it’s relevant for anyone who needs to work with people to deliver stuff. We all operate in an increasingly stressful environment, whether we’re running complex projects, handling customer complaints every day or simply juggling the demands of work and home. It is this stress that often lies behind the seemingly irrational, unpredictable, negative behaviour that we see in co-workers, stakeholders and ourselves. Understanding that cause and effect unlocks the potential for coping with stress better, for avoiding knee-jerk reactions that can exacerbate a stressful situation, and for maintaining good relationships with stakeholders and the people we depend on.