Sweaty palms and the power of being nicer to each other

Climbing sea cliffs is a lot harder than it looks. As I heard one indoor climbing gym graduate shout-out after being three moves into what looked like a simple climb ‘there’s #@*% nothing to hold on to!’ All those bumps, cracks and seams have been weathered smooth over a few hundred million years and every hold demands you smear the hand across or pinch it hard.

Any rock climber who has read this far will know the feeling. Just looking at the picture makes your palms sweat. About three quarters of the 4 million sweat glands in our body are the temperature regulating eccrine glands and these are most concentrated in our hands, feet and forehead. They are connected to sympathetic nerve fibres and are triggered when we go into fight and flight; and, as any sweaty palmed climber looking at that picture right now will tell you, that danger doesn’t have to be actual. Virtual will do just fine, our imagination will fill in the gaps and, in that deep, primal part of our consciousness, there’s just no difference.

I had fun sharing the stage with a good mate and colleague the other night. Dr Nick Mabbot is a guru on sleep and fatigue and he asked me to show the audience how anxiety is observable in the tone of our muscles and how they’ll then constrict our posture. It’s a protective mechanism after all, to pull things tighter and closer; and as we already know – this process can be triggered by imagined danger just as easily as the real stuff. But this can cut both ways and by teaching people some basic separation movements it can send a powerful message through the body to relax: shut down that sympathetic activity, slow down the release of adrenaline and help lower the cortisol levels in our brain. Making sleep more possible and more profound. There was a lot of dopey, relaxed people walking around as we chatted afterwards.

It’s a big issue this one. Possibly the biggest issue for companies that want to retain good people doing their jobs well. People are burning out and breaking down all over the place. The percentage of the population reporting anxiety related health issues has been going up steadily since the 1950’s. We seem to have created a world that’s materially easier and safer, but where those imaginary threats that can trigger our sympathetic nervous system are abundant. Knowing how to switch off this response, and doing that regularly, is a very handy skill. Otherwise we just marinate in the body-chemistry of mild alarm and gradually erode our wellbeing.

But here’s another angle. It was an audience full of occupational health and safety people after all; and teaching people to relax is not managing the risk, it’s just managing the consequences and that’s too low on the hierarchy of controls for any occ health boffin that I know. I got into deep conversation with one guy who’s working with an engineering company. Their work is in very high-pressure environment and they’d lost some good people to stress in recent years. So, he investigated, and discovered something obvious and something else less obvious but very interesting.

The obvious bit was managing workload. A few demands had got out of hand and the communication channels to correct this weren’t the best. Being more thorough about making sure people had realistic targets made a noticeable difference.

The other source of stress was, simply, how people treated each other. Day to day interactions conducted unpleasantly; where people put the needs of their own ego ahead of the requirements of the task, was a big trigger for people’s stress levels. This guy was an accomplished martial artist and knew all about ego.

“I’ve had it kicked out of me, literally.” He said.

So he’d been running sessions with all of their crews on the importance of keeping the ego in check and handling yourself with more grace and dignity. Teaching them that putting others down or losing your own self-control to win an exchange is, actually, a defeat, for yourself and the business. This rang true with me as I’ve seen people that put the outcome ahead of the relationships invariably come undone in the long term.

Who would have though that’d be such a powerful part of the solution? Just be nicer to each other.

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