Nathan is a champion. His sales numbers were always the best in his division, his customer service record was second to none and everyone loved being on a team that had Nathan in it.
Lately, things have changed. He has become short with people (both customers and colleagues), he seems on edge all the time. Customers have noticed and complained that his service has really deteriorated. He has lost three big accounts and his numbers are tanking.
So how does someone go from being a superstar to a liability?

The answer, toxic stress!

It turns out, Nathan is under a bit of financial stress and has turned to gambling in an attempt to improve his financial situation. The gambling hasn’t helped and the hole he has dug himself into is only getting bigger.
Nathan is experiencing toxic stress and as a result his work performance, family life and general happiness are in free-fall as well. He is not making good decisions and he is finding it exceedingly difficult to find a way out.
Toxic stress is the lingering, nasty stress that bounces around your head with no resolution in sight. This type of stress will elicit a fight or flight response from your body and unless it is bought under control, it can cause a multitude of problems with your health, relationships and general well-being.
The stress response is an essential part of human evolution and 10 thousand years ago, the fight or flight response would have saved our ancestors from being eaten by sabre-tooth tigers. Your stress chemicals (cortisol and adrenaline) are there to ensure survival if attacked by predators. These chemicals make the heart beat faster, the lungs to breath heavier and they also get energy to the muscles to help with fighting or running.  In the jungle, it’s a great system. Not so great for customer service.
The stress chemicals also turn off the systems (digestion, immune, reproductive) in the body that aren’t needed for running. You don’t need to digest lunch, fight off a cold or get horny when you are running from tigers. Unfortunately, one of these redundant body parts is your New Brain (or pre-frontal cortex). This is the part of your brain that deals with problem solving and complicated, modern day thinking.
The New Brain uses a lot of energy, and by taking your it offline, toxic stress essentially makes us DEFENSIVE and DUMB. (Ever wonder why a stressed person ALWAYS takes thing the wrong way??) Toxic stress decreases your ability to assess situations, makes you selfish and decreases your empathy levels. In this state, you go into survival mode and this makes it very difficult to connect with clients, and customer service plummets.
Nathan’s money pressures are creating a dominant thought that is not effective. He unable to see past his own problems and assess other people’s needs and he is getting desperate for sales. Customers can smell desperation. A desperate salesman comes across as fake, pushy and not genuine. Never a good combination for sales and building trust with clients.

So, what does Nathan, or anyone experiencing toxic stress, need to do to decrease the toxic stress and get back to the better version of themselves?

  1. Honest self-awareness. Are you lying to yourself and making up stories to justify poor decisions?  Are you avoiding the real problems and using things like alcohol, gambling, drugs and food to feel better (momentarily) and forget about the bigger problems in your life? If you have honest self-awareness, you will engage your entire brain to help find a solution to the problem and see the situation as a challenge and not a threat.
  2. Identify your dominant thoughts. I have a three part Stress Teflon quiz: “What am I thinking? Why am I thinking it? And, is it helping?” these three questions are the basis for Mind-awareness. Understanding what you are thinking is an insightful version of mindfulness without the hippy overtones. Mind-awareness is essential to understanding why we do the things we do.
  3. Own your problems. I sound like Dr Phil, but “owning your problem” will get you out of the denial stage and get you into a state of mind that will help you solve the problem or accept that you can’t solve the problem. Either way, you will be better off if you understand why your are doing destructive things. The possibility of a win when gambling may have made Nathan feel better in the short term but is unlikely to improve his financial situation. Mind-awareness and understanding what’s going on in your head will keep your new brain connected and enable you to make smarter decisions.
  4. Get into work mode: Leave your troubles at the door when you get to work. There is nothing you can do about your home troubles while at work. By putting your “work hat” on when start work you can leave your other troubles at the door. Giving work your full attention will also help you forget the other stressors in your world. Consciously taking deep breaths and short periods of meditation will help calm the fight or flight response.
  5. Exercise. The fight or flight reflex is priming you to run or punch-on. Do it! Exercise, run, lift weights, punch a boxing bag. Use up some of the energy that stress has made available. Exercise is like having a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin. It makes you happier and more focussed. Exercise helps you think clearer and lets you find solutions rather than just rolling the problems around in your head.
If you are in any form customer service role (who isn’t) you need to understand that customers and colleagues will sense your anxieties and feel uneasy. There is also scientific evidence that we mirror the people we deal with. In customer service (or leadership roles) the people around you will mirror your anxiety. In sales, this is a disaster! Anxiety will cause people to stick to the status qui and do nothing, not purchase and view your service as being sub-standard. Toxic stress is contagious and you need to get it under control.
Stress can be a very productive motivator, but it needs to be kept in check to maintain customer service standards. A Stress Teflon stress workshop can help your business understand stress and teach you how to utilise it.
It’s good being in business when stress doesn’t stick.