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Pressure and Stress - 22 November 2012

In some cultures, initiation rites are held so that girls and boys become women and men. Sometimes these practices can be really painful.

One such ritual can be found in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. The Sateré-Mawé tribe is notorious for the way it uses bullet ants to transform boys into warriors.

The tribal elders create gloves out of leaves into which they place dozens of venomous ants. The boy is then required to place his hands inside the gloves … and keep them there for 10 minutes without showing signs of weakness. While this is happening, his fellow tribe members dance and sing.

Once that’s over, the boy is closer to becoming a warrior. But he’s only one step closer because he needs to undertake the same process another 20 times in subsequent months.

Anthropologists have identified three main stages of initiation rites, and all three are present whenever employees feel overwhelmed by intense pressure and stress.

Stage One – Separation: This is when the boy is taken away and kept in isolation.

In the workplace, it’s characterised by withdrawal. Employees might start calling in sick. Or, if they still come to work, they can become uncommunicative, forgetful, and slack. These are early warning signs. Use them as an opportunity to have a discussion about what’s going on and what could be done to alleviate the pressure before it gets to Stage Two.

Stage Two – Transition: This represents the challenges that the boy needs to overcome.

At work, this stage is represented by ambiguity. It’s not unusual for employees to be confused, unsure of priorities, uncertain of their abilities, and doubtful that the pressure and stress will be short-lived. During this period, your leadership objective should be to provide clarity and hope. If either of those two is missing, there’s a risk your employees might quit.

Stage Three – Reincorporation: This is the celebration held to honour the boy’s return.

You know you’ve made it to this stage because there’s acceptance at last. But acceptance can have different meanings. For some, it’s an acknowledgement that the pressure and stress is finally over. For others, it’s an acceptance that the pressure and stress is the new normal, which means they have little faith it’ll ever change. Be conscious of those who fall into the second category because (for many personality types) it’s unsustainable.

Perhaps there’s some truth in the old phrase that ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. But the initiation required to reach that point can be quite the ordeal.


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