Being a paramedic during the formative years of my working life, I’ve been surprised at how many of the lessons that I learned on the job have translated to the business world.
Being a paramedic is a surprisingly boring job. There can be a ton of downtime (a running joke was that EMS stood for Earn Money Sleeping) and many of the calls that we ran on were essentially routine for us. While the experience started as terrifying and painful for the people we served, we used our skills to alleviate physical and emotional suffering as best we could. Much of this was accomplished by establishing that we were in control of the situation and letting everyone know that we were going to make things better. Then there were the tough ones – chaotic, out of control, violent, overwhelming scenes with too much happening all at once. When we would arrive, we had to be the ones that were in charge and that were going to provide the relief, no matter how bad everything was. Even if we were terrified on the inside, our demeanor had to remain calm, composed, and reassuring.
In business, we hope to never see these kinds of life-threatening emergencies, but we do have plenty of situations that feel like one. Whether it’s a project that goes sideways or a fiscal problem that creates a need for job losses, the people impacted will have the same kinds of physiological stress responses.
When the brain is under this kind of stress, our ability to make good decisions is drastically reduced. We are all familiar with the “fight or flight” response that comes with adrenaline, but there are additional compromises that can result. Our thinking, in order to try to make us feel safe, drops into a state of confidence in our own correctness and others’ failure despite the reality of our own mistakes that have contributed to the situation. Our memory becomes much less reliable, both for active use and the ability to recall after the event.
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To reduce stress and ensure that the business continues to operate effectively, leadership must work to create that sense of calm and control in others that paramedics do. Research has clearly shown that it is leaders who are capable of empathy and compassion that create the largest single factor for productivity and profitability in a business. Employees of those organizations that have invested in the emotional well-being of their employees are markedly more productive, with a large ROI on that investment that is seen at the micro and macro level. So, a company that seeks the greatest chance for success must cultivate within its ranks a culture of empathetic, compassionate leaders that are effective at reducing the acute stresses associated with work, so that those employees can focus instead on the work in front of them in a healthy and supportive environment. The old paradigm that created hostile, stressful environments has been shown to be much less successful.