Sam Pearce: how can stressed out advertising go from fearful to fearless?

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What is stress really doing to our work?

The epidemic of stress in advertising is often discussed as a purely moral or ethical dilemma. And we should certainly focus on ensuring we have healthy and happy people. But what if we also frame it as a business problem?

Until the rise of the robots is complete, the industry is completely reliant on people. Mere mortal flesh, human beings.

For any person there are three core characteristics that make them valuable:

They have the creativity to solve problems; the emotional intelligence to work with others and
they can learn new skills.

At this stage, we can apply some basic physiology. What happens to a person when they become stressed?

The answer is that the ‘flight or fight’ response kicks in. The body starts pumping blood to the major muscle groups to either leg it or swing a right hook at a threat. In an attempt to save energy, the body shuts down any non-essential faculties.

In this moment of survival, problem solving, emotional intelligence and learning are all deemed non-essential. So the parts of the brain responsible for the very reason we are valuable shut down.

In essence, if they are afraid, the people who work with you cannot be creative, solve problems, work with others or learn new skills.

Which puts an entirely new dimension on the problem of stress. It’s not just a question of ethics, but also biology.

We can’t have people feeling afraid. They can’t do their jobs.

Why are people afraid?

Adland has always attracted hard workers. If you want to throw yourself into your job, it’s a great choice. There are few limits, and endless amounts of work to be done. It’s an industry with a legendary work ethic.

Add technology into the mix, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Whatever limits there were have disappeared; you may previously have worked until 11pm, but once you walked out the office door, you were free. Now you carry entire the office with you in your pocket.

A turbulent and uncertain decade has coincided with the rise of the digital age. This has had three consequences:

Uncertain Values

What we do, the value the industry adds, is no longer clear. Are we there to bring big ideas or generate lots of ‘content’? To be an adviser or servicer of our clients? On an individual level, we aren’t quite sure what it is we value, which makes it hard to know what to do.

The Rise of Metrics

In the digital age, we feel most comfortable with what we can measure. Creativity, relationships and strategic thought are all difficult to quantify. Hours worked, emails sent and meetings attended are all easy to. Since we don’t know what is important, we lean towards what we can count.

The Path of Least Resistance

What’s the easiest way to decide what to do each day? Let your email inbox and calendar decide. It’s much easier than thinking about it.

The consequence of these consequences is busyness; they all lead towards doing ‘more’ and doing it publicly. This gets stressful: endless frenetic activity with more emails, more meetings, longer hours, all in the hope that other people think you’re doing the right thing.

No wonder people are stressed.

How do we make people fearless?

If stress if about fear, then the solution is about safety. In fact, it’s about psychological safety. The term describes the feeling that when you act you will be given the benefit of the doubt. If you ask a question, the assumption is that you want to learn, not that you want to be impertinent. If you make a suggestion, it’s that you want to help, not undermine your boss. If you spot a problem, you’re trying to ensure everything goes smoothly, not pick holes.

It’s trust. Trust is the opposite of fear. And the benefits are clear: imagine every suggestion that every member of your team could make that they hold back. Imagine how much better the work would be if they felt they could say it.

How do we build trust? It’s built by how we act, day to day. The ways in which we treat each other (and ourselves), determine the levels of trust. It’s much more important than any email we could send, and requires as much of our attention as our inbox does.

Trust is built by actions. How can we begin to build a more psychologically safe workplace?

Think about what’s important, and focus on that: it may be creativity, relationships, problem solving. Reflect on what is important, and give it your full attention. Clarity breeds trust; you know what you’re being held against.

Find ways of working that ladder up to what’s important: Sending emails and attending meetings may fill the day, but are they making the work better or getting the job done? What could you say no to, so you can say yes to what really matters? The proof is in the pudding; values become behaviours when they are put into action. And that’s when the trust comes.

We’ve built up some bad habits, but any habit can be broken. We can shift the focus of our culture from one of busyness to fearlessness.

It’ll take time, work and investment. But it’s what the industry needs.

Sam Pearce is a former agency account director and the founder of Train of Thought, which offers coaching, training and consultancy in less stressful working and people development.

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