Never Let Them See You Sweat

For good or ill, I’ve always been a very emotional person. We all respond to stress in the workplace differently, and for me, stress has often rattled my perceptions of the world. You could see that in some of my second grade report cards. My standard defense mechanism against stress in my adulthood is to get really quiet and nearly Spock-like in my factual description of a situation. My theory on this approach is that screaming about something is unlikely to make it better, so I try to drain the emotion from my head and voice and just focus on the task to be done.

I’m not always successful.

Like most human beings, I respond to stress with fight-or-flight chemicals coursing through my body, resulting in widened eyes, flushed skin, increased pulse, irritability, and increased vocal pitch/tempo. However, in my 20s and 30s I was like that a lot, to the point where I had a “heckometer” in my office to warn people what my stress level was (pictured below). A manager took me aside and explained that I needed to get my emotions under control because a) it affected my work, which I knew, and b) it affected the people around me, which I did not know. Stress, for lack of a better word, can be contagious.

So out of self-defense (and a desire to get better jobs), I eventually I learned to increase my “pain threshold” and not fly off the handle at every little problem that crept up. In fact, I even got to the point a few years ago where I gave up the heckometer.

Heckometer

One other thing I learned when I started taking on leadership roles is that calm can be contagious, too. It was a lesson that would serve me well when I was running conventions and other events. The theory runs something like this: If the guy or gal in charge is calm and s/he knows more than I do, why should I be stressed out? It might sound silly, but human beings really are emotional creatures, and a great deal of leadership involves either playing tricks on yourself (calming yourself down and convincing yourself that everything is fine) or on others (assuring people around you that everything will be fine). A lot of leadership boils down to never letting them see you sweatand the farther you progress in your career, the more important these skills become.

Your stressors might differ somewhat from mine. My “level of heck” will usually go up when I’d have too many overlapping “Priority One” assignments and too little time to do them all. I’d screw up one thing in midst of the worry, and then things would sort of cascade from there. In the great football move The Replacements, Keanu Reeves’ character has a name for it: quicksand. Check out the video below (Note: a wee bit of NSFW language here).

Despite the progress I’ve made over the years, that’s not to say stress can’t get to me anymore, as it did recently. You know it’s a bad day when the guy who normally goes cold/quiet is dropping things, missing steps, and being told to calm down. In fact, I was given my own advice and told to walk away from the desk for five minutes, which I did while also taking a few deep breaths. We all have those days! Anyhow, I returned to the desk, feeling mildly better. I retrieved my laptop from the floor, only to physically break the USB drive attached to it…which contained the only copy of the document I’d been rushing to finish, and which was due in five minutes. Spock made a half-hearted return as I had to report the problem. A quick fix was found, which did the trick, but good grief that was a rough way to start the morning!

Another moment for stress hit me last Wednesday morning.

I got up at my usual time and grabbed a glass of water. Only after I’d finished it did I realize that it tasted “off.” And that’s when I considered the fact that my glass was close to my liquid antibacterial soap and the soap had a tendency to drip. I had an awful taste in my mouth, but the big concern was medical. After all, the label on the soap, once I bothered to read it, warned to get medical help or contact Poison Control immediately if ingested, which clearly I had done. So to get my heart pumping at 0730, I found myself calling 911. I stated what had happened as specifically as possible and explained that I was calling to determine if this was, in fact, an emergency. After a couple of transfers to reach Poison Control, the 911 operator expeditiously informed me that a few drops of antibacterial soap are not toxic, but can cause stomach cramps or diarrhea. Not the worst news I’ve heard.

I hung up, feeling a wee bit better, and gave some more thought to how people communicate under stress. The people who handle 911 emergency numbers are to be commended. Rather than allow themselves to get keyed up, they put me through to the person who could handle the call and gave me an answer in a direct, reassuring way. NASA Mission Controllers are like that, too. It might drive the public a little batty that everyone sounds so monotone, emotionless, and factual, but space is dangerous and doing things wrong there can get people killed. You don’t want the guy/gal who’s going to talk a mile a minute and lose focus on the headset when things go awry–you want that Steady Eddie (or Edie) giving you clear instructions so you can set things right.

The label on my soap, while not spectacularly detailed, was at least direct without being terrifying.

And despite the fact that I was worried about dying from something potentially poisonous in my body, I was able to keep my tone flat and stuck to the facts.

The bottom line is that stressful or even dangerous situations can be resolved well if everyone keeps their head. It’s not easy, but maintaining “grace under pressure” can be good for everyone around you–including you. The trick is remembering that when it counts.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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