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Six Sigma and more: David Schwinn
'Tend and befriend,' not 'fight or flight' in stressful situations

This week, our daughter-in-law and the mother of two of our grandchildren was diagnosed with an aneurysm behind her left eye. Fear flooded over me. My column is also due this week. I write my column about things that are important to me. Nothing is more important to me right now.

As I thought of our situation, two remembrances came to me. The first was Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY: 1940). As part of the title, it quotes:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Although Hemingway seems to be focused on death, my fear and the fear of many is of any kind of loss. The quote brought up the second remembrance.

Paul Simon, in his song, “I am a Rock” (CBS, NY: 1965), describes a common reaction to loss. The song finishes:

I am a rock
I am an island
And a rock feels no pain,
And an island never cries.

Simon’s sentiment in the song, partially describes the “fight or flight” reaction to stress proposed by physiologist, Walter Cannon in the 1930’s (Nancy K. Dess, “Tend and Befriend,” Psychology Today, September 1, 2000, retrieved October 17, 2010) and, since then, generally accepted as the most common reaction to stress.

That is the kind of culture I found when I started working at Ford Motor Company in the early 1970s. The stress within the company created an “attack” culture. The common approach to survival in the area where I worked was to achieve promotion and power. These were achieved by outstanding accomplishments, but most commonly on the backs of potentially competitive employees. It seemed almost like our current political environment, where it was more important to make another employee--any employee--or another part of the company look bad, than it was to do something for the good of the company. Thank God, Phil Caldwell and Don Petersen began to change all that, at least a little, beginning in the 1980s.

I continue to see this kind of behavior. I was recently involved with a change in management that created stress and fear. An outside facilitator was brought in to work with the employees to try to find a solution to the various problems that had arisen. The employees in the session were so stressed that they initially refused to talk because they were afraid to speak in front of the other employees. This “fight or flight” reaction is not useful, but it continues to be too common.

More recent research (Dess) has revealed that the “fight or flight” response tends to be a male reaction to stress. Since most of our organizations come from male-dominated cultures and many times, women feel that they must adopt this culture in order to succeed in organizations, it makes sense that our organizations fall into “fight or flight” behavior in stressful times. But this recent research also found an alternative response to stress.

The research found that women tend to react to stress with “fight or flight” less often than men. Women more often appear to tend to vulnerable offspring and to more tightly connect with peers. This phenomenon has been summarized as “tend and befriend.” Furthermore, there seems to be evidence that this “tend and befriend” response is deeply rooted in the evolution of social mammals. We all know that we all, both men and women, have both masculine and feminine qualities within ourselves. We can all choose to “tend and befriend.” We have a recent, magnificently lovely example of this choice.

Upon arising from the 70-day ordeal of the Chilean mine collapse, foreman Luis Urzua, 54, described the hellish experience, but he knew what his job was. Some of the miners became worryingly depressed and often sank into dark moods. Urzua said his job was to keep them focused and raise their spirits by keeping everyone talking. He was successful. All 33 miners survived (Andrew Gregory, Chile mining foreman Luis Urzua tells how they survived on tiny rations in underground hell, October 15, 2010, retrieved October 17, 2010).

These are days of stress. The world economy is worse than it has been in decades. “Tend and befriend” works better than “fight or flight.” Give it a try.

As always, I treasure your thoughts and questions. I’m at support@pqsystems.com.

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