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Executive decisions: Heart overrules head

22 April 2014   (0 Comments)
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Stress is more than a health risk – it’s a key cause of executives’ inability to do their jobs effectively. Lloyd Chapman and Gaby Prinsloo uncover the physiological cause of stress to unlock improved executive performance.

The overarching challenge for executives today is complexity. Complexity has many dimensions, one of which is the organisational complexity of global companies, not forgetting their increasingly long and interconnected supply chains. Globalisation also makes for a much more complex competitive environment. All these and other variables need to be understood and constantly balanced by executives – and over a timeframe that extends as much as five years into the future.

To perform well under these conditions requires a mix of capabilities and skills. Perhaps the most important of them is the ability to learn quickly, to master new facts and generate new conclusions based on a shifting set of facts and inferences, and to accommodate often competing strategic and tactical goals.

"And yet despite having the potential to manage complexity, many executives continue to be overwhelmed by it,” says Dr Lloyd Chapman, an experienced executive coach. "I became convinced that stress – the other constant in the executive life – affects a person’s cognitive abilities and thus his or her ability to deal with complexity.”

Chapman’s researches led him to Gaby Prinsloo, whose doctoral research on the impact of stress on cognitive ability could not have been more apposite.

The physicality of stress

"We tend to think about stress as a psychological condition but actually it’s much more complex,” Prinsloo says. "There are a number of other factors that also contribute to the physiological stress response. To manage stress effectively, you need to be aware of all these factors, so that you can improve those that are easily changed, and increase the body’s resilience to the others. The goal is to manage the physiological stress response in order to create the optimal learning environment, and thus enhance the ability of executives to deal with the complexity inherent in their jobs.”

Prinsloo also distinguishes between acute and chronic stress. Acute stress, which is short-term, can be associated with enhanced performance. It can even stimulate the immune system; hence the phenomenon of a person falling ill the moment a tough deadline has been met and the stress stimulus has been withdrawn. Repeated acute stress, severe acute stress and chronic stress, by contrast, can impair the immune system and contribute to the development of serious conditions like hypertension, heart arrhythmias, heart attacks and metabolic syndrome.

It’s all in your heart

In other words, there is a link between the physical and the mental and, Prinsloo reasoned, there was probably a way to reduce stress using physiological techniques.

One of the key indicators of the impact of stress on the body turns out to be the variability of the heart rate. Chapman explains that a resting heart does not have a regular beat, as is often supposed; in fact the beat is surprisingly irregular. The variability of this rate provides an indication of the activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems[1]and of how adaptable a person is – and so potentially how effectively they might be able to manage stress.

In other words, one could have a low heart rate (something that’s basically considered to be a good thing) combined with a low heart rate variability, and so a low ability to adapt to stress. It’s the variability of the heart rate that is the key to coping with stress.

"When optimal, heart rate variability oscillates at 0.1 hertz,” Prinsloo says. "We call that ‘the zone’, and everything we do with our clients aims to help them understand how to get into that zone, where their ability to learn is optimised.”

This ideal frequency is in fact the inspiration behind the name, Point One, chosen for their joint-venture consultancy.

Research has shown that the lower the heart rate variability – which is the physiological effect of stress or strong negative emotions – the less effectively the cerebral cortex functions. This inhibition of the cortex reduces the clarity of one’s thought and one’s ability to make decisions and communicate. In crude terms, the more stressed a person is, the less able they are to function mentally and thus to learn effectively.

Chapman and Prinsloo base their approach on helping people recreate the ideal frequency, and thus the optimal state for learning, by regulating the breathing. This is because the breath affects the heart rate.

Breath of life

It’s more than just deep breathing, Prinsloo hastens to explain. One needs to breathe in a specific way at the optimal frequency to invoke a state of relaxation coupled with enhanced cognitive ability that raises performance levels.

In other words, "relaxed and alert” is the desired state.

Increasing the heart rate variability has the opposite effect to the low heart rate variability alluded to above. Mental performance and the ability to solve problems creatively are enhanced. Thinking is more flexible, and decision-making is improved. Memory is enhanced and the body’s immune system is stimulated.

This is a highly simplistic explanation of a complex set of biofeedback loops, but the essential point is that managing the physiology of stress helps to promote optimal conditions for learning, and thus for enhanced executive performance.

Prinsloo and Chapman have developed practical techniques for helping executives to measure their stress levels. The first step is to measure the heart rate variability, and then to use breathing techniques to increase it, thus promoting the physiological conditions for clear thinking and optimal learning.

Positive emotions are another good way of prompting the state of relaxed alertness so conducive to clear thinking and good learning. Sincere appreciation is what Chapman recommends, on the basis that love is hard to find in the corporate world!

A highly practical approach

As an aside, he notes that this process of getting the mind into the right frame for optimal learning actually mirrors the ancient technique practised by the Jesuits, renowned for the acuity of their thought. Jesuits tend to take a practical rather than a theoretical approach, and thus all learning activity begins with expressing gratitude; preparing the soil, so to speak.

The insight that the body and mind are interconnected is hardly a new one, of course, but it does enable a highly practical approach to solving the problem of how to help executives cope better with complexity, and thus improve their performance.

"In the coaching situation, deep breathing and controlling the heart rate variability enable the executive to improve his or her ability to learn, and thus to become better at dealing with the complexity inherent in his or her work life,” says Chapman. "For the first time, I am truly working at an integral level.”

Chapman himself says that he seldom begins a coaching session without using a biofeedback monitor to help get his own heart rate into the zone. This in turn enhances his own clarity of thought, and improves his coaching abilities. The corollary is clear: executives who learn this technique of managing stress can take it beyond the coaching environment to enhance their overall performance during the normal working day.

"I believe this approach has the potential to make coaching much more effective,” Chapman concludes.

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