Last fall, I did a documentary with HBO, directed by Peter Berg and produced by Michael Strahan, called State of Play: Happiness. In the film, we explored how to create a positive culture in organizations where the culture or conditions make it difficult to talk about “happiness.” During the first half of the documentary, we examined the NFL to see how people create happiness in an organization where the average career is 3.3 years, where there’s a high potential for injury, where the competition is high, and where there’s a perceived culture of being too tough to talk about emotions. In the second half, we counter posed the NFL with the military, specifically the Navy SEALs. The conclusions that we drew from these case studies may surprise you. One of those conclusions was that stress actually made people feel more bonded to their organizations.
You read that right: Stress made people want to stay with their organizations. Seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?
As a happiness researcher, I’m continually asked about what I think is the main ingredient for raising employee engagement scores. I firmly believe that one of the greatest keys to getting employees to fall in love with their companies is actually stress. Part of this belief stems from my own personal experience. In order to attend Harvard, I had to go on a Navy ROTC scholarship. During boot camp, if one of us couldn’t get over a wall, the instructors would make all of us run. If one of us fell out of the boat, we all had to go overboard. Why? Isn’t it better to just weed out the weak?
After centuries of practice, the military has learned that if you go through stress 1) with the right lens and 2) with other people, you can create meaningful narratives and social bonds that people will talk about for the rest of their lives. And those bonds might just keep people in an organization, even where they’re probably getting paid less than in the private sector and might even be less safe. That’s because instead of viewing stress as a threat to happiness, organizations like the military derive their culture from the pride of being able to overcome challenges together.
The military doesn’t have a monopoly on meaning; every company and team could change their approach to stress to get people to bond with the organization. In order to create the right lens for stress, we need to realize that embedded within every stressor is meaning. If I tell you that your inbox is overflowing with spam, you probably feel zero stress. If I tell you your inbox is overflowing with leads or coworkers you need to respond to, you probably feel stressed. The problem with stress comes when you feel the emotional response to stress, yet forget the meaning behind it. Behind every stressor — even a never-ending slog with your inbox – there’s an opportunity for you to develop aspects of your potential, such as patience, endurance, and efficiency.
Moreover, in a previous HBR article, we found that trying to avoid stress creates a fight or flight response which exacerbates the negative effects. Thus, it’s important for companies to highlight the meaning involved in the stress they feel on a continual basis. We need to help our teams realize that stress is a group challenge, not an individual burden. And we need to connect the dots between meaning and stress in order to help individuals and teams excel.
In the HBO documentary, Strahan, a former NFL defensive end, told me that his best statistical year came when he decided to focus on helping his teammates excel, rather than worrying about whether he would get injured and have to retire. A year after that documentary, I had the opportunity to interview Habitat for Humanity CEO Jonathan Reckford to learn how to build and sustain a culture where people would want to work with and for you. He told me that thousands of people come to Habitat for Humanity passionate about changing the world, much like with the military. And yet when the volunteers find out that there is a ton of red tape, or that you have to be 16-years-old to swing a hammer, or that there’s a scarcity of resources, or that they’re not licensed to make certain changes, many get frustrated and quit. Their lens caused them to perceive all of that stress as a threat to their passion.
But some people at Habitat for Humanity see the scarcity of resources from a different lens. The challenge of creating homes with few resources and an abundance of red tape actually fuels their passion. They feel bonded with the like-minded people who are engaged in the effort to create a better world. As a result, these individuals will remain with the organization for decades.
Reckford told me that his job as CEO is to inspire and train team leaders to help their teams see stressors as a meaningful group challenge. It’s the same task that NFL coaches have when they instill the idea that it’s teams — not individuals — who win championships. That’s why drill sergeants at boot camp tear down the idea of the individual overcoming stress alone and instead build up the idea that if we face stressful situations together, we can overcome them and use them to meet our greatest potential.
Changing the way we think about stress, happiness and meaning require “daily strokes of effort,” according to Harvard professor of psychology William James. Managers need to talk about the challenges teams are going through on a daily basis, intentionally highlighting that the obstacles in our path are a challenge, and not a threat to happiness; that the team can only succeed together; and that there is a larger meaning behind the stress. Individual team members, for their part, can learn to see stress not as a personal burden, but as a shared experience in pursing team potential.
One important caveat: this approach does not include hazing. There’s no need to create artificial stress for team members — there’s already enough unavoidable stress out there. And cultures work better without bullies. The military, sports teams, and Habitat for Humanity all give excellent examples for how we can reframe everyday stress to create a culture not only of meaning, but of high connection. It comes down to perceiving stress as a challenge, and understanding that we’re all in it together.