Addicted to Adrenaline


Are you a manager who lavishes praise on those who can swoop in and save the day when a project hits the skids? Are you an employee who prides yourself on damage control and the ability to pull all-nighters? If so, industry expert Linda Hayes suggests that you or your organization may have a condition that masks an even more troubling underlying problem.

We've all been there. Whether it's the night before the big deadline or the night after the big crash, we have all soldiered on through crazy hours, working frantically to achieve the impossible. And, exhausted but triumphant, we have all achieved the impossible more times than seems possible.

But is this a good thing?

This question stopped me short in a recent meeting where we discussed the chances of management approval for a test automation initiative. I was waxing enthusiastic about the benefits of reducing the cost of operating failures through increased coverage, and I asked the test manager whether she thought this idea would resonate with management. She reflected, then said, "I'm not sure they appreciate the risks because we have been so successful in averting or recovering from them."

In fact, she continued, the organization had become so expert at responding effectively to crises that they had all but developed an addiction to the adrenaline that flowed from the high drama of high stakes. After all, how boring is the predictability that comes from developing and following thorough and well-thought-out plans? Or, even more insidious, how much more gratifying is it to be perceived as a hero who has overcome all odds to save the day, rather than as a solid, consistent performer?

Ironically, the very skill of dealing with disasters masks the underlying need for it—the lack of planning and process—thereby discouraging management commitment to solving the real problem.

Does your organization have this problem? And, if it does, how do you solve it?

The Symptoms
One symptom of adrenaline addiction is the ubiquitous use of pagers. Now, I realize that pagers are useful ways of communicating in companies that are widespread, but what I'm talking about are companies where pagers are used constantly because the crisis du jour can't wait until you are back at your desk to get a voice mail. While every company has emergencies now and then, when they become common occurrences you know you have a problem.

I once consulted for a company where pager calls were so common that to get anyone's attention you had to put "911" in the message, and when that became overused it was "*911*" which meant, I suppose, this is REALLY a REAL emergency, as opposed to the usual emergency. It was both comic and tragic. People brandished their pagers like pistols, whipping them out of their holsters, frowning ominously, then announcing importantly that they were needed at once elsewhere. Meetings could barely be convened let alone concluded without one or another attendee having to scurry off, fire hose at the ready. Unfortunately, the story had an unhappy ending—the company did not survive.

Other symptoms include, of course, constant overtime leading to employee burnout and turnover, employee burnout causing overall deterioration of morale, deterioration of morale resulting in declining productivity and falling profits, etc.

Adrenaline in small doses readies us for fight or flight; a steady diet dulls our senses.The Cure
So what can you do about it? Obviously, it is not healthy for your career to ignore true emergencies for the sake of making a point, as in those signs that say "Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part," even though it might be justified. On the other hand, you might unwittingly be reinforcing adrenaline addiction if you only notice and reward crisis-response behaviors and ignore those who maintain sane schedules precisely because they have not precipitated any problems.

I am reminded of my first real job out of college at an accounting firm, where I sought to impress the partners by arriving early, staying late, and generally maintaining a harried air. The managing partner called me into his office and told me that they had noticed the hours I was keeping. I was preparing to accept his appreciation and perhaps a raise or promotion, when instead he informed me that they had scheduled me for a time management course! Exhausted accountants make more mistakes, he said, that have to be caught and corrected by others. It was far more efficient, in his experience, to be rested and alert. A wise man.

So take this quiz:

If you are an employee, are you 1) drawing attention only to extreme measures, or are you 2) taking pride in the calm, efficient discharge of your responsibilities?

If you are a manager or team leader, are you 1) showering praise on those whose inefficiencies result in all-nighters, or are you 2) measuring and rewarding those who are so well organized that they don't generate any drama? And, once a crisis has passed, are you 1) so grateful for the heroic measures that you fail to question the reason for the threat in the first place, or do you 2) conduct a postmortem to focus on how the entire episode could have been prevented?

If you answered any of these questions with a "1," you are an adrenaline addict. Seek help.

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