Stress Tolerance

If you’re one of those who feel you can handle a lot of stress, you might be high in the executive skill of Stress Tolerance.

Executive skills are brain functions or cognitive skills that neuroscientists have located in specific regions of the brain, primarily the frontal lobes. These functions develop starting at birth; they’re hardwired into every person, and fully developed by adulthood. The skills are called executive skills because they help people execute tasks.

Every individual has a set of 12 executive skills (self-restraint, working memory, emotion control, focus, task initiation, planning/prioritization, organization, time management, defining and achieving goals, flexibility, observation and stress tolerance). Each person has two or three that are their strongest and two or three that are their weakest, and they are not dramatically changeable for life.

For example, if a person’s weakest executive skill is stress tolerance, several stress-relieving seminars or classes taken are not likely to dramatically change it. The executive skill of stress tolerance is the ability to thrive in stressful situations and to cope with uncertainty, change and performance demands.

Over a global base of senior executives and managers, NFI Research queried business executives and managers to measure their level of stress tolerance.

Slightly more than a third of executives and managers were high in stress tolerance while only four percent were low in the skill. The remainder, just more than half, had a medium level of the executive skill.

Some executive skills are typically opposites of others. For example, a person high in the executive skill of stress tolerance typically is low in the skill of time management, which is the capacity to estimate how much time one has, to allocate it and to stay within time limits and deadlines.

A person who is high in stress tolerance would have a high tolerance for ambiguity and be emotionally steady in a crisis. They would be able to handle deadlines being moved up and even welcome the challenge of working until something is finished. “I strive on the ability to make a difference in my field,” said one manager who completed the stress tolerance questionnaire, part of the Executive Skills Profile. “When the stress level rises in the room, it indicates the time to perform if you want to make a difference.”

Someone low in stress tolerance would become emotionally stressed in a crisis and only feel comfortable when they know their schedule for the next few weeks. After making a mistake in a presentation, they might obsess about it for days.

A person’s weakest executive skills fail first when under pressure, so if a person is low in stress tolerance and is pressed hard, that person will become even more emotionally charged, perhaps even angry when asked to modify something. “A healthy amount of pressure and stress is good for an organization, and a crisis can often bring out the best in people,” said another respondent. “However, when there is no opportunity for down-time, re-grouping or stabilizing, the risk of burnout and poor quality work is increased. The trick is in finding the balance.”

A person high in stress tolerance can generally handle and even thrive in high pressure situations and even uncertainty while someone low in stress tolerance should do whatever it takes to avoid those situations.

Chuck Martin is a best-selling business book author whose latest book, SMARTS (Are We Hardwired for Success?) (AMACOM/American Management Association), was just published. He lectures around the world and can be reached at chuck@nfiresearch.com.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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