You've doubtless read several times in newspapers over the past few weeks about the incredible 'resilience' of the British, and Londoners in particular.  Leave aside for a moment any doubts about whether continuing to go to work when you are at risk of attack is automatically an indicator of resilience (and nothing to do with the fear of losing your job), and consider what this phenomenon tells us about ourselves.

Why is it that office workers, who seconds earlier might have been throwing a wobbly because they couldn’t find a paper clip, will selflessly help injured people into ambulances without a squeak – not even moaning to their colleagues afterwards about how difficult it’s going to be to get the blood off their new trousers?  Is it something to do with the humbling effect of staring tragedy in the face? Or do we simply recalibrate our capacity for stress moment to moment, as required by the unpredictable events of our lives?

Go back a few years, somewhere between the era in which we were all going to die in a nuclear war and the era in which we’re all going to die in a terrorist attack, and you might remember the era in which everyone was being taken hostage – journalist John McCarthy being the name that generally springs to mind.  I remember conversations at the time in which people’s general sentiment would be how amazing it was that McCarthy and his compatriots were able to cope with the experience – the implication being that ‘ordinary’ people like you and I would never be able to.  But of course we would – just as the ‘ordinary’ people taken hostage did.  All that would happen is we would raise our tolerance threshold.  Evolution has equipped us for survival in conditions somewhat harsher than the average air-conditioned office – despite what the behaviour of your co-workers might suggest.

This is why I get so fed up with all the codswallop we are constantly force fed about how modern life is so much more stressful than any previous age.  I mean, come on!  Would you really prefer to live in the inter- or post-war 20th Century, or during the Roman or Saxon or Viking or Norman invasions, or in any pre-Victorian City whose rivers were open sewers?  Business book writers are obsessed with the ‘turbulent age’ we now live in.  They would doubtless concur with a contemporary description of workers thronging through London’s streets: “Their thoughts being entirely engrossed by business…. constantly darting forward, they jostle [those in their way] with a force proportioned to the bulk and velocity of their motion.”  Recognise the description?  It was written in 1772.

Notwithstanding the text messages you receive littered with ‘gr8’ or ‘lol’, notwithstanding the grunting youths sitting behind you on the train – indeed, whatever your elderly relatives might tell you – we live in a more literate world than ever before.  This means two things: we have a greater vocabulary with which to describe our suffering, from post-traumatic stress disorder to ADHD; and we have access to more information about the sufferings undergone by other people, which plants the idea in our head that we should be suffering too.  Like Adam and Eve, we find that eating the fruit of knowledge brings more misery than pleasure.  

I was struck by a recent psychological survey which concluded that increasing numbers of people are reporting what those in the trade call an ‘external locus of control’.  In other words, the majority of the population see themselves as having no influence over the things that happen to them – everything is the result of outside forces. An internal locus of control, on the other hand, means you see yourself as in control of your destiny.  (I used to have one, but I was worried my boss wouldn’t approve.)  Couple this with the increasing ease with which you can get a sick note because you are suffering from an illness called ‘stress’ (if it’s an illness, you can’t have caused it) and it’s no wonder you lack any kind of resilience to deal with the photocopier running out of paper, or someone knocking an important Post-It note off your computer screen (neither of which would happened in medieval times, when everything was so much less stressful).

The most challenging fact about organisational life is that you can be as stressed as you choose to be.  It requires something quite scary, which is to decide that you will be responsible for everything that happens to you.  More on this in the next issue.  Till then, next time your office photocopier runs out of paper, I suggest you find someone with an external locus of control and tell them the boss said they have to refill it.  They’ll be stressed anyway – seems a shame to waste it.


© Phil Lowe, 2005.  All rights reserved.