Working with “insurance” is stressful


Working with “insurance” is stressful

  • By Ian Bradley
  • 2 Tags

“I’ll just run this by my boss” was a phrase that I heard all to frequently from my client who came to see about work-related stress.  Laura, a young woman in her first major corporate job, worked for a boss who micro-managed.   The boss, who did not like surprises, insisted upon being appraised about each and every decision Laura was about to undertake.

Although Laura’s job description in her public relations post included elements such as “contribute to strategic direction” and “self-starter for initiatives,” she found herself checking even the most mundane of details – even seating arrangements at luncheon meetings.  Early in her tenure, she was “burned” by the boss for many of these minor decisions that she had made on her own.  So now, when confronted with decisions and anxiety about which route would her boss like to recommend, she checks things out.  Laura views the “running by” as a type of insurance against further criticisms and negative reviews.

Problem is: she’s stressed.

BF Skinner the founder of radical behaviourism could have told her why.

His theory was “radical” because it explained behaviour relying exclusively upon contextual environmental events – either triggers to cue a behaviour or those all important consequences that serve to maintain a behaviour.   It is the latter “consequences” that are particularly relevant in Laura’s situation.

Briefly summarized, these consequences produce two types of learning – positive or negative reinforcement depending upon whether the consequences are added or removed.  In positive reinforcement, the person gains something desirable for displaying a new behaviour.   In negative reinforcement, some pain is reduced for displaying a good behaviour.

The interesting aspect is that both types of learning work equally well – that is, both can teach new things at approximately the same rate.  A child can learn to wash his or her hands before meals by being verbally rewarded for doing so, that is positive reinforcement; or by feeling less icky or dirty after washing, negative reinforcement.  Over our lifetime we probably experience an equal mixture of both types of learning, eg teachers who rewarded with stickers and teachers who gained student compliance by threatening volcanic outbursts.

But there is one big difference – a life dominated by negative reinforcement is stressful.  In Laura’s case we can see why.  Checking one thing out is like paying a premium for flood insurance.  You do it once a year and you can quickly dismiss that horrendous mental image of your new IPad floating in a sea of living-room water.

However, writing a premium check everyday is not only costly, but you never stop thinking about the ultimate threat.  The insurance premium and what it protects against – “the flood” – become so connected in your mind that the insurance, instead of being reassuring, is only alarming.

Working to avoid censure, criticism, conflict whatever negative thing one might either expect or imagine is a recipe for stress.  At the very best, it leaves you neutral, never happy.    More likely, its repeated use leaves one working scared