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Think like Plasticine

What comes to mind when you think about plasticine? Soft, malleable, flexible. Quite simply, it does not harden or dry. It can be whatever design or shape you choose. Bingo! This idea is at the heart of this month’s newsletter.

Think for a moment. Is there something at work that is bothering you?

  • Are you avoiding someone?
  • Are you worrying and getting anxious about a task such as giving a presentation or preparing a board paper?
  • Are you putting off doing work that is important?
  • Generally, does it all feel too hard, too negative and a bad place to be?

Regardless of the reality, if you responded ‘yes’ to any of the above questions, then people and work tasks are likely to be causing you anxiety and stress. When this occurs you can choose to either:

  1. Change something about the situation (which you probably would have done by now if it was that easy); and/or
  2. Change something about yourself.

If the situation can’t be changed (i.e. the part of work that is causing the stress), then the best thing to do is to change your thinking about it. Think like plasticine! Break it down, start again and remould it.

But I almost hear some cynicism. “Can this really happen?” is a question I am sure many of you are asking. Yes, is the answer. In fact there is extensive evidence that the brain cannot only change in terms of thoughts, but also physically through various kinds of stimulation. The actual physiological structure of the brain can change, which in turn can affect the way people think.

The brain constantly re-organises itself all of our child and adult lives, a phenomenon technically known as neuroplasticity. The main ingredients to making the changes occur are attention and effort. Brains and thinking patterns do not change overnight. There needs to be considerable attention paid to the new thoughts. This can be as much as more than one hour per day for five to 10 weeks (Prensky, 2001).

So, if you decide that putting up with your anxiety and stress at work is getting in the way of high performance and enjoyment, then here are some steps that you can take:

  1. Catch the unhelpful stress-provoking thoughts. Even if you only spend the first several days consciously catching every unhelpful thought, then you are well on your way to change. Write them down.
  2. Examine the thoughts. Unhook from the thought. Stand back and look at the facts and various opinions. Come up with at least one reason why the thought may not be accurate. For example, your unhelpful thought may be: “Unless I learn my presentation by heart, I will panic and forget what I have to say”. A challenge to this could be: “In small groups where I know the members, I can talk about anything without much preparation”. This is a reason why the first thought is not accurate.
  3. Replace with an alternative helpful thought. Following on from the above example, a new helpful thought could be: “My presentation is in front of colleagues. It doesn’t matter how many”, or “I enjoy presenting to colleagues; it provides a forum for sharing”. This new thought is your PET (Performance Enhancing Thought).

To aid the process, draw your attention to activities that will help the situation as well. In this instance, maybe phone a few attendees of the presentation to get their input on what would be useful for them to hear.

Always keep your attention and focus on the new helpful thought. Yes, the technique is simple and yes, it does work.

Remember that change is a choice. You ultimately choose what you do and think. I am suggesting that you choose to change your thinking to be more effective, and see the difference that it makes to your energy and happiness.

What managers can do

The technique of reframing and thinking flexibly is really something that we can only do for ourselves. We are affected by our own thoughts. However, as a manager, you can encourage alternative views within your team.

For example, use the technique given above to ask questions that will encourage an individual who seems to be ‘stuck’ with an issue, to look at it differently. Some questions you could ask are:

  • What are your thoughts about xyz?
  • If you were to challenge your view, what would it be?
  • What is an alternative way to look at the situation?
  • How can we use this alternative to deal with the issue?

Related research

The effectiveness of replacing ‘unhelpful’ thoughts with new thinking and attention has been seen to be powerful even in clinical groups.

One example is obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers. These people have repetitive dysfunctional behaviours, such as excessive hand washing. By having the sufferers focus on alternative activities, there were shown to be significant improvements in clinical symptoms as well as changes in the brain circuitry associated with them (Schwartz, 1999).

This article is authored by workplace performance and resilience expert Lyndal Hughes, Associate Director at Third Horizon.

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