Creative Processes and a Healthy Environment

-- Andrew Pikul

How much stress is okay in the workplace? Since design engineering is a critical and demanding creative process, lets talk about exactly why abusive environments hurt productivity.


Some stress is healthy and/or realistic. For example, weight-lifting puts a literal stress on a muscle group to stimulate growth. Likewise, professional stressors are inconvenient but expected and manageable through various techniques such as expert help, collaboration, and exercise. Recently in America, meditation is gaining popularity to manage unavoidable stress.

Negative stressors are obviously not healthy, especially over long periods. Continual lack of sleep or inadequate access to nutrition creates a literal stress on the body: tolerable on a short term basis, these are medical conditions on a long term basis.

Here's the trick: bad management can easily create undue stress. Not only are emotions contagious, the structures used to motivate employees can be inappropriate (think of the Wells Fargo scandal).


The long-term affects of unmanaged stress are intuitively bad: depression, weight gain, strained relationships, etc. But don't discount the short-term affects. Executive decision making- such as your ability to control your focus- competes with emotional decision making!! The amygdala enjoys direct and immediate control over cortisol and epinepherine production. To drive the point home, your amygdala responds to visual stimuli before the prefrontal cortex is made aware of the image- your heart rate will increase before the dangerous image has been fully constructed in the "display" of your brain. It's called the "amygdala hijack". Your fight or flight response isn't part of a sustainable workday.

The detrimental effect of a perceived stressor is that we focus on it. Because of the fight-or-flight response, we may be "hyperfocused", or be preoccupied to different extremes. For example, if you're focused on the politics of an abusive boss, you're not focused on the work relevant to company value. We need employees focused on task, and good bosses need to "get out of the way".

Dealing with abusive people is phenomenally distracting- and for a reason. We work for hours in creative blocktime, which is stressful by its own merit. As we are hardwired to hyperfocus on our stressors, it's unproductive for that focus to be a manager.

As abusers tend to silo people to control perception, abusive environments halt the flow of information, cultivate a culture of dishonesty and distrust, and reduce collaboration. It does so by setting the tone through inappropriate discipline, and then ultimately selects against collaborative and well-intended talent in hiring and retention. While healthy and rational professional arguments can aid in the deconstructive and constructive processes of architecting engineering and policy decisions, abusive arguments turn people off to collaborating. Good argument is not a fight, it is a type of collaboration.

It's possible to be unintentionally abusive, as policy can have unintended effects. The goal is to reduce unproductive stressors by being communicative, open, and consistent. HOWEVER, I can't stress it enough, that some abusive behavior is at best persistently ignorant and at worst pathological. Good managers establish rapport and fantastic communication with the reports- dulling the impact of our own mistakes. Obviously, this is not possible with a pathologically abusive person.

Furthermore, abusers, generally undiagnosed, don't accept responsibility and lie frequently, subverting attempts by upper management to create accountability.

Truly good employees will try not to get involved in abusive patterns- instead, they will try to focus on the action items that derive actual value for the business, and ignore or find constructive ways to deal with perpetrator. However, there are two points I'd like to make:

  1. If their abuse is pathological, the abusers are measuring the emotional response to their attacks and will adjust their tactics to produce the intensely negative response that they want.

  2. Your heart is trying to tell you something. It may be upsetting that your creative and career pursuits are being interfered with by a distracting despot, but it may be more effective to listen to your heart and take care of this problem as a priority. That is, let go of it, and deal with the politics first.

Good luck if you have a boss like this.