Team-Building – Revisiting the Golden Rule in Times of Stress

One of the most popular axioms in both eastern and western culture is the Golden Rule, loosely summarized as “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” Although useful in general (who doesn’t want love, respect and kindness, for example?), the Golden Rule is flawed when it comes to specific personality preferences. Quite simply, people are not all the same; they have different needs, different ways they want to be treated, and this is particularly true in times of stress. Whether at work or at home, people respond in a variety of ways when put under pressure. The team leader’s task in the workplace is not only to know how she, herself, prefers to be treated in such situations, but also to understand how her staff reacts to the inevitable pressure cooker, and what each person might need in order to move beyond the crisis and get back on track.

Interestingly, Buddhist teachings have much to say about how our minds behave under pressure. The Buddha posited that people, although different in countless ways, tend to respond with five typical, habitual behaviors when faced with challenging situations. These five responses (or “hindrances”) are: 1) aversion, 2) desire, 3) sloth & torpor, 4) restlessness, and 5) doubt. The five hindrances arise — singly or in combination — whenever we’re faced with challenges in our life. I know that for myself, I tend towards “desire” when under stress in my life. After a particularly hard day at work, for example, I’m likely to run off to a theater for a movie marathon and a big box of popcorn. Everyone’s different. A skillful leader must understand and overcome these stress responses in each of his team members if he hopes to pull his team through a crisis.

Consider the following workplace scenario: Your development team has been working on an important account for months, but has consistently missed its deadlines. The client is threatening to withdraw from its agreement, potentially costing your company a million dollars in revenue. The five-person team reacts to this threat as follows:

* Jim: “How could the client be so petty! We only missed the deadline this time by a few days. I have half a mind to call and give them a piece of my mind. And while I’m at it, I think I’ll have a stern talk with Gerald, who’s really been lollygagging the last two months. If anyone’s responsible for this mess we’re in, it’s him!”

* Gerald: “Whew, what a rough day it’s been! I’d sure feel a lot better having a cold one down at Dewey’s Tavern. And maybe a big burger and fries to go with it – yeah, I really deserve a treat on a lousy day like this.”

* Mariah: “I don’t think I can even get up and go into the office tomorrow. Hey, I’ve got a sick day or two saved; I think I’ll just call in with a cold or something, curl up in bed and hide away from the world.”

* Alex: “This is terrible! Without that account, what’s going to happen to the company? Or to my job? I’ve got a family and a mortgage. It could be months before I find another job like this. Years maybe! This is very, very bad.”

* Tanya: “I wonder if this is all my fault. I certainly was a day late on my report. Was I wrong to join this department in the first place? Maybe I should’ve stayed in accounting. Maybe I should’ve stayed at my last job-at least there we didn’t have such high-profile clients. I might just not be ready for the big time.”

In each case, a particular mental hindrance led to a characteristic response from each team member. When faced with stress, for example, Jim tends to respond with aversion, often manifested as anger. Gerald leans toward a “desire response”, retreating into pleasure seeking. Mariah reacts with torpor (or sloth), characterized by a de-energized sequestering. Alex responds with restlessness, often expressed as mental agitation or worry. And Tanya’s habitual reaction is most certainly doubt.

If Jim hopes to restore his team’s equilibrium in time to save the account, he urgently needs to reel each team member back from the extremes of their personal “hindrance responses.” This will be a challenging task for Jim, as each of his reports has gone down a different, archetypal emotional path, and will require a different approach. Jim, for instance, must recognize that his own thoughts have followed the road of aversion; he cannot solve any of the team’s problems until his own mind has cooled down. A lengthy work-out at the gym might be in order for him, or perhaps a session of venting with a friend outside of work. Once his own mind is bit clearer, Jim must then diagnose the symptoms of each of his teammates, identifying their specific hindrances and then conceiving possible steps for overcoming their particular behaviors. After all, time at the gym may work for aversion-oriented Jim, but it’s not what will bring the junk-food loving Gerald back into the fold. With Gerald, Jim might try convincing him that the work will soon be fun again. With Mariah, he might try reminding her that fixing problems can be energizing, rather than draining, and so on. The danger with this approach is that the team might see Jim’s efforts at “fixing them” as an attempt to shut down their emotions, which anyone would resent.

In the end, it may be that the best a manager can do is acknowledge to the team that the situation is stressful and that he knows they all need to go through their own process, their own stress reaction. Jim might simply say, “Take the time over the weekend to do what you need to do and feel what you need to feel. Then let’s start fresh on Monday, roll up our sleeves, and get to work, together, solving our problems.”

In truth, there is no magic remedy for healing people’s hindrances. We are, after all, human and have had a lifetime to develop our mind habits. Sometimes our hindrances just have to run their course. But as a team leader, understanding your teammates’ tendencies under pressure can allow you to know what to expect from them in times of crisis, so you’re ready with an appropriate response. The new Golden Rule, then, is: “Treat others as THEY would like to be treated.”