Executive decisions: Heart overrules head
22 April 2014
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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.”
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tough deadline has been met and the stress stimulus has been withdrawn.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
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
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 systemsand
of how adaptable a person is – and so potentially how effectively they might be
able to manage stress.
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
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
ideal frequency is in fact the inspiration behind the name, Point One, chosen
for their joint-venture consultancy.
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.
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
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
other words, "relaxed and alert” is the desired state.
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
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.
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.
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
A highly practical
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.
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
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
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.
believe this approach has the potential to make coaching much more effective,”
more information, visit www.pointoneperformance.com