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  • David Meikle

One month in – stressed yet?

To most of us, the rest and recuperation we had to varying degrees over Christmas is but a dim and ever distant memory, but many in the business sector will be already be experiencing work-related stress, not least those in marketing and marketing services.

As we all know, extreme stress can be very damaging to your physical and mental health. And make no mistake, stress can be a killer. So, I wanted to share how I manged to significantly reduce my own stress levels in the hope that it might help others in similar circumstances.

(And I’m not virtue signalling here, I’m shamelessly plugging how this led to one of the pillars of my marketing model in How to Buy a Gorilla, but maybe you’ll enjoy the story if not the thinly-veiled pitch.)

By way of some context, I was working as a board director in a London ad agency in the year 2000 and found myself under an extraordinary amount of stress. Much of my career had been managing difficult pieces of client business, so I was accustomed to significant amounts of stress, but this was at a whole new level. The apex was when I was on a shoot for three new TV commercials in the States. Each day when I awoke it felt like I had a 10-pound weight on my sternum. The feeling would stay there all day unless I was either asleep or I had had more than a couple drinks. After a few weeks, when the weight didn’t abate, to counter the problem I did the following:

  • Gave up alcohol

  • Gave up caffeine

  • Took stress counselling

  • Listened to relaxation tapes

But, despite all these efforts, there was still no change. So, after a little negotiation, my employer’s HR department agreed that I should visit a private doctor.

The doctor was an in his early thirties, much like me, and had a calm and gentle demeanour – as though he was channelling the manner of JR Hartley. I spoke to him for about 45 minutes as he asked me about my work in some detail, after which he said quite confidently:

“I think I know what your problem is”.

Although I was my typically cynical self, I managed to suspended my disbelief and listened to what he had to say. He continued:

“Your problem is you have responsibility without control.”

It seemed rather a simplistic analysis at first, but I sat quietly for a moment and thought about it. The experience the followed was the closest I have come to an epiphany. Almost immediately the invisible weight lifted from my chest as it became clear to me in my work not only who had control and who had responsibility, but also that these two things needed to be with the same person.

For months, I had been taking responsibility for things that were far out of my control - rather than identifying the consequences of their actions to those who were in control - consequences for which they would have to assume responsibility rather than me.

Once you know the answer it seems terribly obvious.

The levels of responsibility you take must be consistent with the level of control you have over the outcome. From that day on I started to ask two questions whenever I was establishing a new working relationship, internally or externally, or when beginning a new project or campaign:

  1. Who is responsible for which outcomes?

  2. Who has control over the things that determine those outcomes?

Strangely, there’s not much more to it. By the time you’ve asked the questions and got to the bottom of the answers, the greatest potential causes of stress have presented themselves and, if they are there, it’s almost always patently unreasonable. Sure, sometimes it’s the circumstances that control you – such as too little time, too little money – but then we recognise these as things beyond our sphere of influence we just do what’s commonly called “our best under the circumstances”.

As an analogy, I can pitch a tent in a hurricane - and I’ll do my best -but I won’t take responsibility for the outcome because the circumstances are far from ideal. But if you instruct me to pitch a tent in a hurricane and won’t wait for it to pass, then you’ll be responsible for the best I can do.

If you think about the possible combinations of high and low control and high and low responsibility, it makes for an interesting matrix. In the one below I’ve included the kind of life examples you might find in each.

Top left: High control, low responsibility

Control over the car but no responsibility for crashes.

Top right: High control, high responsibility

Control over plane, responsibility for it, for its passengers and their lives.

Bottom Left: Low control, low responsibility

No control over dodgem, but doesn’t matter – you’re just along for the ride

Bottom right: Low control, high responsibility

You're responsible for your child, but have limited control over them

In a work scenario, by far the most rewarding place to be is top right. Here you are working to the peak of your ability with an optimal blend of responsibility and control. By far the worst place is bottom right – where you have responsibility without control – as the Dr JR Hartley told me: this is a clinical definition of stress.

So, if you find yourself in the bottom right hand corner of your working world, what are your options? Well you could:

  1. Demand/negotiate control that is consistent with your responsibility

  2. Demand/negotiate lower responsibility so it’s consistent with your level of control

  3. Quit and stay – stop caring so the stress can’t hurt you

  4. Quit and quit – find an alternative position where responsibility and control match

But, if the circumstances are such that you have great responsibility and increased control is out of anybody’s hands (that basically means a force majeure – not deference to high-control leadership) then all we can do is our best and be content therefore that que sera sera.

The principle applies equally to business-to-business relationships and departmental wrangles.

For example, a marketer might argue that without proper control over their marketing investments and their marketing strategy they can’t be responsible for the return on investment. Their agencies might argue, as I once did, that if the client changes creative work too much the agency stops being responsible for its effectiveness.

Although it might sound a little unrealistic I assure you it isn’t once you try. When as individuals, teams or companies we have responsibility and control, we get to put our money where our collective mouth is if you like. We have greater self-belief, greater motivation, we’re more efficient, more diligent and ultimately we do better work.

And it’s one of the key ways you can improve marketing performance in

How to Buy a Gorilla.

David Meikle. Author/Founder How to Buy a Gorilla



Twitter: @htbagorilla.

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