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The Micro-stress Effect

How little things pile up and create big problems

A few years ago, while doing research on 300 high performers in 15 different global organizations, we found something surprising. In spite of having been identified by their organizations as exceptional performers, the further we got into our interviews, the more it became apparent that many of them were struggling to hold it all together. Yet it was never any one big thing that was affecting them; rather it was a relentless accumulation of unnoticed small stresses that drastically impacted their well-being. We came to call this phenomenon "micro-stress:" Small moments of stress triggered by interactions with other people that happen so quickly we barely register them, but whose cumulative effect is enormous.

Micro-stress comes in many forms: Micro-stresses that drain our capacity to get things done (such as facing a surge in responsibilities at work or at home); micro-stresses that deplete our emotional reserves (for example, being surrounded by “second-hand” stress from other people); and micro-stresses that challenge our identity (such as being part of an aggressive sales team when that’s not who you are naturally). But we also learned something important from the small number of high performers in our research who were better at mitigating the effects of microstress than most of us. They had just as many micro-stresses in their lives and careers as the other high performers, but they were able to navigate them better. That wasn’t because they were somehow inherently stronger than the rest of us, but because they were able to build resilience—not through individual strength and heroic effort but rather through their interactions with other people. This is a significant insight. For a long time, we assumed that resilience is something that can only be found when you dig deep to find some kind of internal grit during difficult times. But if you ask 300 people how they navigated difficult stretches in their lives and focus not on what they did but on how they tapped into relationships around them you see a series of specific ways connections in our lives create resilience (but only if the connections have been developed and if people know how to turn to them). In short, through this research, we learned that resilience is a team sport. Let us show you what you can do today.—Rob Cross and Karen Dillon

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