I know what it’s like. I’ve been there. 18 hour days cycling in all weather conditions high up in the remote Rockies, miles from civilisation, on my own, sleep deprived, hungry and physically tired. The effect was to reduce the quality of my decisions to worse than those of a drunk. I should not be surprised, research into the impact of the training regime on Navy Seals and Army Rangers has documented in some detail just how badly degraded cognitive functioning can become in extreme environments. It explains in part my utterly stupid decision to see whether I could get a photograph of the black bear I had missed by inches whilst descending a steep mountain path. Common sense would have dictated putting some distance between myself and the startled animal, rather than stopping and get my camera out. Clearly, I was not thinking straight.
An army of intelligence
Try as I might, I cannot find the same research into the impact of extreme environments on the lives of business people. A business person may not be expected to spend time in the wilds, but extremely long working hours, lots of travel across time zones, different cultures and languages and the pressure to deliver results is by no means easy when compared to someone who attends the same office each day, parking in the same place and with a mostly similar routine.
Take for example the case of John, normally an engaging and interesting person, he sat at the dinner table contributing little to the conversation. He had landed at the airport just a few hours earlier from a transcontinental flight, one of several he’d taken that week as he travelled around the world visiting suppliers and shareholders. He wasn’t too sure whether the meal he was eating was meant to be breakfast, lunch or dinner, so confused was his body clock. In the past, John had been a keen rugby player and occasional cyclist, but he was simply too tired to do any activity these days. There are many senior business leaders who would relate to John’s current state. If this work environment is having the same cognitive degrading impact on John as the military environment does on soldiers, then John’s decisions are likely to be significantly poorer than if he were fresh and rested.
At present, there is no easy way of assessing the impact to determine a) whether John should be making an important decision, given his state or b) at what point he is sufficiently recovered to be considered “effective”. If John were drunk at work, he would be dismissed, or at the very least sent for some counselling to help him learn how to manage his alcohol intake. So why is it that, when the context in which John has to operate potentially reduces his decisions to worse than that of a drunk, we simply expect him to get on with it? It makes no sense to me.
The military have some tried and tested methods to train people such that in the heat of the moment and under extreme pressure, even when tired they are more likely to take the right decisions. We have no such training in business.
Just like many executives, John had learned to cope. He had adapted to his lifestyle and had developed a level of resilience to the pressure. These adaptations are to be expected based on the research into military training. This same research also shows us that coping can vary depending on a number of additional factors, such as:
- The nature of the extreme environment – for example, the sense of isolation
- The characteristics of the person – for example, their will to win
- The work that has to be done – for example how ambiguous or monotonous the work is
- The level of danger – the personal risk to the individual
In business, the decisions are unlikely to be life threatening either to self or others, but they are many and varied and relentless in nature. The world of work in business has its equivalent aspects of a) to d) above, but in the absence of research, it is not clear how these pressures compare to those of the military.
A safer way
My plea is that we take a systems approach to the way we manage our best people. Instead of simply looking at their performance in isolation, we should factor in all the significant elements that can impact on performance such as travel, the business trading environment, the nature of the work the individual is being asked to do, the people they are working with and through, and to look at it as a whole.
Secondly, we stop deluding ourselves that a busy executive jetting around the world is a valuable and useful person and discourage people from seeing that lifestyle as a badge of honour. If we really want the best decisions from our best people, we should focus on ensuring that they are cognitively effective: This means properly rested, living a healthy lifestyle and having the time and space to think. The paradox is, the more senior an individual is in a business, the more they are paid to think and the less to do, and yet these are the people most under pressure to be here, there and everywhere, which degrades the very thing we are asking them to do.
Thirdly, is that we treat the nature of work in the same way that Health and Safety has separated out process safety from ‘personal safety’. Yes, we need to help people to manage their resilience and stress (the equivalent of personal safety) but we should also consider more carefully the impact of the environment in which people are expected to operate (the equivalent of process safety). Above all, it’s an area that cries out for more research.
Dominic Irvine ©2018 All rights asserted
First published in bdaily on 5 September 2018