Our industry suffers from chronic stress, and in order to change things, we need to fix our addiction to external validation, writes B.B.E’s Adam Beaupeurt.
I recently saw Dr Norman Swan talk at an event held by The Marketing Academy, on the topic of dealing with stress in our industry. He spoke about how stress is closely linked to how much control we feel we have over our own lives, known as the locus of control.
When it comes to control, there are two extremes. There are those who believe they control everything, and those who believe they control nothing. The locus of control refers to the perceived location of a person’s control: either internal or external.
People with an internal locus of control believe they control their own life, and base their success on their own work. People with an external locus of control believe that everything good in their life has come from outside influences, be it other people, ‘luck’, or a higher power.
Dr. Swan’s talk got me thinking about our industry’s own locus of control. Here’s the story we’d like to believe: we work hard and come up with great creative ideas, and are rewarded with promotions, awards and lasting success.
In reality, we’re suffering under the weight of perceived external control. In fact, in my experience, the industry is so far on the ‘others control my destiny’ end of the spectrum that it wouldn’t even show up on the chart.
We leave work on time, because we don’t believe we’re allowed to leave early. We don’t ask for flexible work, because it looks bad. The reason we’re so obsessed with awards? A desperate desire for external validation.
The flipside of this external way of thinking is that we can always blame someone else for our own failures. No one liked our idea? They obviously didn’t understand the concept. We didn’t win that award? The winner must be friends with the judges. We will believe anything, except the glaring truth: maybe we need to do better work.
As a result of this damaging way of thinking, our industry is suffering. Unsurprisingly, having an overly external locus of control makes you more likely to suffer from chronic stress, depression, and psychological distress.
Chronic stress has a physical impact on the brain, known as the allostatic load. This Wikipedia article can explain it better than I can, but essentially: when we constantly feel as if our future is uncertain, the chronic stress causes literal wear and tear to our brain. If you think you’re going to create the best work of your life in that state, you might want to reassess your priorities.
There are solutions, but no external deity is going to hand them to you on a plate, and leaders have a vital part to play in flipping the script. They have the power to give people control over their own working lives, and letting them guide the narrative.
Another concept from Dr Swan’s talk that could be useful here is self-efficacy: our own belief that we can accomplish a particular activity. If we go into a project believing that we will achieve a great outcome, then there’s a lot less to be stressed about. If you’re an agency leader, try giving your staff as much autonomy as possible, and boost the team’s belief in their own abilities.
Often, communication is the missing link. In our screen-obsessed society, sometimes ‘taking back control’ is as simple as having a straightforward conversation with someone. Instead of embedding your own thoughts, feelings and insecurities into a seemingly blunt email, try having a face to face chat instead. The same is true when reading a seemingly blunt email.
Of course, these systemic challenges can’t be solved with a click of a leader’s fingers. Changing a deeply rooted work culture takes time, and will involve some serious introspection. But in order for us to do our best work, we need to work on improving our self-efficacy and shifting our locus of control towards the internal.
At the risk of sounding cheesy, we need to believe that we have the power to control our own destiny. If not, chronic stress will continue to bite, and we’ll be stuck endlessly munching on KFC as we work through the night on yet another pointless presentation.