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The Ripple Effect of Stress: Projective Identification @ Work

I recently went to leave home for an important meeting, only to realise I couldn’t find my car keys.  Frustrated and late, I raced back inside.

The kids - still on holidays, remained profoundly undeterred by my franticness  - one a lazy squint from the poolside, one scrolling on the couch, another staring into the fridge looking like she’d just been asked the final question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? 

Agitated, I ask the teenager closest to me if it would kill her to help.  Annoyed, she crankily called to her sister to “Get up and help”, prompting the second teenager to tell the third to “shut the fridge door it’s not a drive through window.” 

I left a few short minutes later but I’d given a master class in projective identification.  Everyone projecting what I had projected onto them - genuinely believing the other was the cause of their irritation like a line of dominoes or hot potatoes. The dog was smart enough to have turned into wallpaper and even the robot vacuum was making a beeline for the door (true story).

Not my finest hour. I mentally put more money in the jar for their therapy. 

The concept of projective identification and the more generalised ‘emotional contagion’, is a common phenomenon at work.  From the Board to the CEO, right down the org chart to employees and between employees (sometimes clients too). It’s as understandable as it is unconstructive. There’s nothing helpful in it and it's a shocking waste of energy that, if we were better at self regulating our own emotions, would preserve more battery than switching from an iphone 8 to an iphone 14.

My kids getting stressed is zero help in me finding my keys faster. A snr leader being anxious and entering his next meeting taking it out on the Accounts manager who happened to be on his phone doesn’t either. Neither does firing off an abrupt email response to a colleague while you've been on hold to the bank for an hour. I'm no expert in physics but projecting stress onto people who can do nothing about it doesn't seem that efficient a use of energy.

Managers have a bigger impact on employee mental health and wellbeing than partners or even therapists do, at times.  Recent research demonstrated that production pressure from managers had a direct and immediate impact on sleep quality of employees, which increased fatigue and irritability across the shop floor the following day. This worsened mood, and increased both conflict and safety incidents.

For all the (valid) conversations about changing work design and many other initiatives, I can’t help but think if we got better at self awareness and self regulating our own stress, we’d make massive improvements in work stress over night.

Me? I should have paused, and asked what level of arousal served my purpose, and used my cortisol on that instead of sprinkling it about like Tinkerbell. Goodness knows I need the space for other things. So does everybody else.


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