If you are building or running a business, you likely feel pressure most of the time.
You spend your days in a rush, putting out fires, trying to solve seemingly insurmountable problems, and worrying about stuff like payroll, deadlines and keeping clients happy. And while you might not like to admit it, you secretly enjoy the constant hustle. It gives you a high that feels almost like being on drugs.
At a biochemical level, you actually are under the influence. The poison of your choice? Adrenaline.
You experience an adrenaline rush when your brain senses a challenge or danger and goes into the so-called “fight or flight” response. Every time you are under a lot of pressure, adrenaline helps you push through it.
And while an occasional burst of adrenaline can be helpful in a crisis, relying on it to get you through every day comes with a high cost.
The adrenaline tax
The consequences of your constant hurry and adrenaline rush might not be yet visible. But they are like a tax that you’ll eventually have to pay for the ability to function in a high-pressure environment without slowing down, taking time off and resting.
Adrenaline takes its toll on your health — it can damage your blood vessels, increase your blood pressure, lead you to experience anxiety, weight gain, headaches, and insomnia.
But there is also another, hidden cost that you are probably not aware of, one that undermines your ability to lead and create a healthy culture in your team.
One of the most severe consequences of running around like a headless chicken in self-induced adrenaline haze is that you might be inadvertently creating the polar opposite of the culture that you want to have.
Psychological studies offer plenty of evidence that an ongoing sense of pressure leads us to behave in ways that are grossly misaligned with our values and beliefs.
There is a remarkable experiment that illustrates this. It was conducted in the 1970s by Princeton social psychologists, John Darley and Dan Batson. They aimed to study the impact of pressure on helpful behavior. Darley and Batson looked at how students of the Princeton Theological Seminary conducted themselves when asked to deliver a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The students were meant to give the sermon in a building across campus. To add to the pressure, they would be evaluated by their supervisors.
As each student finalized their preparation in a classroom, the researchers gave them one of three instructions:
- “You’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago… You’d better hurry. It shouldn’t take but just a minute.” This was the high-pressure condition.
- “The (studio) assistant is ready for you, so please go right over.” This was the intermediate-pressure condition.
- “It’ll be a few minutes before they’re ready for you, but you might as well head on over. If you have to wait over there, it shouldn’t be long.” This was the low-pressure condition.
As each student walked to the other building, they encountered a ‘person in need’ (not unlike the traveler in the parable of the Good Samaritan — the topic of the sermon they were just about to deliver!). The person in need, who was a member of the research team in disguise, appeared destitute and in crisis.
Interestingly, only 10% of the students in the high-pressure situation decided to stop and help. 45% of the students in the intermediate-pressure and 63% of the students in the low-pressure situations helped the person in need.
Darley and Batson concluded, “A person not in a hurry may stop and offer help to a person in distress. A person in a hurry is likely to keep going. Ironically, he is likely to keep going even if he is hurrying to speak on the parable of the Good Samaritan, thus inadvertently confirming the point of the parable… Thinking about the Good Samaritan did not increase helping behavior, but being in a hurry decreased it.”
This is what adrenaline and pressure do to you. They override your values and make you behave in ways that you can’t be proud of.
And the worst part is that you are often completely unaware that this is what’s happening.
If you are like the majority of founders and leaders I work with, you are thinking about your people and your culture every single day. You genuinely want to do the right thing.
But there’s just so much to do and so little time…and so you hope for the best and get on with the urgent stuff first. And while you do, you miss plenty of opportunities to act in congruence with your values, just like those theology students missed a chance to be a good Samaritan.
Unfortunately, you can’t hit a pause button on culture. Your culture won’t wait until you have less pressing issues to attend to.
Your culture is emerging and solidifying right now. And, sadly, it’s not being shaped by:
- What you think about
- What your intentions are
- What you say you value
- What you hope will happen
- What your vision is
What shapes your culture is what you do. Because when it comes to culture, it’s the leader who casts the longest shadow.
I’m not suggesting that you drop everything that you do today.
Hurrying slowly is about pacing yourself and developing habits that make you more resilient and productive.
You need new habits that will help you and your team to reset and recharge.
It might sound counterintuitive at first, but one of those habits is… kindness. I know. But hear me out.
Research shows that being kind is hugely beneficial to our health and well-being. It changes the brain, impacts the heart and immune system, and may even be an antidote to depression.
The author of The Five Side Effects of Kindness, David Hamilton, collected scientific evidence on the impact of kindness and concluded that being kind:
- Makes us happier
- Strengthens our hearts
- Slows down the aging process
- Improves our relationships
- Inspires others to pay it forward
Kindness will not only counteract the sense of pressure that you experience, but it will also be good for your business.
The Zenger Folkman study tracked 51,836 leaders and noted that the most likable leaders, the ones who displayed kindness, were also the most effective.
In my interview on The CultureLab Podcast, Kip Lambert, the Chief Culture Officer of Destinations, attributed his company’s three-digit growth to cultivating a culture of kindness.
Certain habits can start a chain reaction of positive change in your life and in your company. I’ve seen this happen in my own life and every time I work with a client.
Charles Duhigg (the author of The Power of Habit) refers to them as keystone habits. Acting with kindness is certainly a keystone habit that allows you to hurry slowly. But to make it stick, you need a smart way to keep at it. And this is where the ancient practice of shukanka comes in handy.
Shukanka is a Japanese term that refers to the process of developing positive habits. It’s a way to make things stick and become second nature. Shukanka is never an item on your to-do list. It’s a daily practice, like meditation and it focuses on developing habits that can transform your life.
As the author of Japonisme, Erin Niimi Longhurst, writes:
“It’s not about getting things perfect or setting unrealistic standards for yourself. There is a saying, Naseba naru, which roughly translates as, ‘If you take action, it will happen’.”
In other words, shukanka is about taking action, no matter how small, every single day.
Beginning something is easy. What’s hard it keeping at it. — Japanese proverb
Here are five simple actions that will start you off with your lifelong kindness shukanka at work:
1. Ask: “What do you need so that you can (…)”*
The first person to direct this question to is yourself.
For example, ask: “What do I need so that I can focus on what’s important, not just on what’s urgent?,” or “What do I need to be a better leader?” Take time with this question and be kind to yourself. No blaming, shaming or beating yourself up. Just genuine care and curiosity about what will enable you to be at your best. And what you figure out what it is that you need, make sure that you get it. No excuses.
Make it into a habit to use this question with others, too.
For example, ask: “What do you need to get this done by the deadline we had set?” or: “What do you need to work better with accounting?”
Listen to people and guide them so that they can create conditions that set them up for success and enable them to do meaningful work. It can be transformational.
2. Say “Thank you.”
Is there a team member whom you admire or someone who’s made a hugely positive impact on you, and yet you never really told them how important they’ve been for you?
Send them a note (or — even better — call them or meet face-to-face) and tell them how grateful you are and how much they mean to you.
3. Be present
In our interview on the CultureLab podcast, the world-renowned voice coach Patsy Rodenburg said:
It’s easier not to be present, but it’s critical that we are.
When someone walks into your office today, or calls you on the phone, see what it’s like to give them your full, undivided attention.
Set everything aside and act as if they were the most important person in the world.
It might sound like such a tiny thing, but making eye contact and smiling at someone can make their day, especially if it comes from their boss.
We live in a world where people are lost in their thoughts (or their mobile devices) and as a result, we end up craving human connection and acknowledgment more than ever before.
So, instead of keeping your head down, look at people every single day and SMILE!
5. Build people up
Stop focusing on what people do wrong and start noticing their good work, their small victories and their honest efforts to create something useful.
Encourage your coworkers to keep going. Give a colleague a genuine compliment about their skills or their work. Rave about people’s awesomeness behind their back. Build people up, don’t tear them down. It will make you stronger too.
Your principal responsibility as a leader is creating an environment that helps unleash your team’s energy and creativity, generate traction towards the shared purpose and foster your company’s capacity to thrive. Practicing kindness is a pathway towards the purpose and heart-driven leadership, and it will set the foundations for a healthy culture in your team.
*I first heard the question from my friend, Jeanette Bronee during her interview on the CultureLab podcast.