Derek Roger on “Work Without Stress”: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Derek Roger qualified originally in psychology, and is a British Psychological Society Chartered Psychologist. The emphasis in his work subsequently shifted to neuroscience, and his ground-breaking research, mainly at the University of York in England and later at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, has made him one of the world’s leading experts on stress and resilience. His research unit at York attracted numerous international visiting researchers, and the findings from his work have been published in over 120 books, keynote conference presentations and peer-reviewed papers. Derek has held visiting professorships in Europe and was adjunct professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand from 2003, before returning to the UK in 2015.

Drawing on the research, Derek developed the innovative Challenge of Change Resilience Training program. Marketed through the Work Skills Centre Ltd., the training is implemented by accredited Training Associates in major organizations across the UK, NZ and the USA, where it forms part of custom programs delivered by the Center for Creative Leadership.

In addition to the experimental findings a number of case studies have been conducted demonstrating the efficacy of the training, and these can be viewed here.

His and Nick Petrie’s book, Work without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success, was published by McGraw-Hill Education (November 2016).

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Before discussing Work Without Stress, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Hardest one first! There have been many. Although I’m not a Buddhist, the person whose writings I try to make part of the way I live my life is Ajahn Chah, a Buddhist teacher who died in 1992. The title of one of his works captures it in a single sentence: Everything Arises, Everything Falls Away.

The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Well, maybe hardest one second; the reason this one’s difficult is that as long ago as the 1980s the research we’ve done has been plowing a lonely furrow, contradicting received wisdom about stress and resilience. The biggest contribution has come from the many people I’ve had the privilege to work with over the years: the postgrad students and post-doc fellows involved in the research and the training associates who’ve been accredited to offer the training program, especially the three CoC Master Trainers (Nick in the USA, Cynthia Johnson in NZ and Jo Clarke in the UK); their constant challenging of my ideas significantly informed the way the work has developed.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

There have been several – take your pick! The first was deciding during a year out that I didn’t want to read medicine after all, and instead did a degree in English Literature. Loved it, but the second turn came with not particularly wanting to be an English teacher, so did a second degree in Psychology, leading on to a Master’s in Clinical Psychology. Third turn was exploring the basic question in therapy, “what works?,” and finding that in clin psych, not a lot! The science is weak, and once you apply proper research design and appropriate statistics the effects become vanishingly small. PhD was in experimental Psychology, but still felt that much of it was explaining one hypothetical construct with another. Neuroscience offers a firmer foundation in the physiological system, so after many years in the Psychology Department at the University of York, the next turn was transferring to being chair of the board of studies in the Department of Health Sciences and Clinical Evaluation.

During a visiting professorship for an academic term at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch in New Zealand, my wife and I stayed in a B&B on Banks Peninsula, an indescribably beautiful place; next turn was that by the second breakfast we’d bought the house, wound up everything in the UK and returned to NZ the following year (and stayed for 12 years, returning just last year to the UK). By the time we moved to NZ (2003) the Challenge of Change Training program based on the research was well established in the UK, but there had always been a reluctance to move into the training business full time (usual question from a civil servant rather than an entrepreneur: ‘what if demand dries up?’ Instead it has continued to grow).

My academic post in NZ was an honorary one, little more than supervising post-grads in exchange for research facilities, so part of the change included launching the Work Skills Centre Ltd. (name of the business that the Challenge of Change is marketed through) in NZ. It grew rapidly there, and was introduced into the Center for Creative Leadership in the USA by Nick Petrie from around 2010 (Nick is a New Zealander who I’d accredited before he left NZ). If you keep turning in the same direction you end up back at the start, and the final change was returning in 2015 to the UK, mainly to be near grandchildren in London.

To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Absolutely invaluable. I’ve spent much of my professional life in academe, where it is a prerequisite, but one of the most important features of the Challenge of Change Resilience Training is the extremely strong evidence-base derived from the research. Most people offering training claim to have evidence, but on closer inspection much of it is at best anecdotal. This is not intended as a criticism of them – mounting major research programs is well nigh impossible outside of the research community. As an illustrative example, to construct a valid and reliable psychometric scale from scratch takes around 5 years to get it to the point where it could be used with confidence; the CoC Profile comprises 8 such scales, validated against cardiovascular and immune function indices and with findings published in many peer-reviewed papers and books.

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Just about everything! Complaints about the disjunction between research and the world of business and technology are commonplace, but it isn’t surprising: what you do in the ivory tower is for its own sake, often with little reference to how it might be applied. I think that’s right – overblown claims for research findings have often been the result of scientists being beholden to commercial companies who’ve funded the work, and science needs to be independent. On the other hand, potentially useful results need to be made available, and the real challenge is translating them from the technical to the applied. This was certainly true for the Challenge of Change: how to turn interesting lab results into programs that could be both entertaining (in the best sense of the word – great training is remembered because it entertains) and useful, but an equal challenge was understanding the corporate world I was working in – steep learning curve!

Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

For the training program, the recent film Bridge of Spies. Story of negotiations to release Gary Powers in exchange for Rudolf Abel, played by Mark Rylance in the movie; the lawyer, James Donovan, is played by Tom Hanks. What makes it pertinent are Abel’s replies when asked by Donovan whether he feels stressed or worried about the process; Abel responds “Would it help?” Detachment in a nutshell!

These quotations are among my personal favorites to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

What I like most about the quote is the detached absence of any claim on the outcome. I have a confession to make: apart from the research, a very significant influence on the training program is my personal interest and practice of an approach to life, encapsulated in Enlightened Living. This is aimed at capturing the ‘perennial philosophy’ that lies at the heart of all teachings, including Lao-Tzu’s, except that it’s designed to be completely free of the forms/rituals that usually characterize these teachings and in turn makes them seem different and separate from one another; there’s a short step from that to the endless wars waged in the name one faith or another. I’ve been offering free meetings based on Enlightened Living for many years, here and in NZ, and the essence is captured in your quote: enlightenment can only happen when you get yourself out of the way and stop claiming glory for ego.

However, the influence on the training is an invisible one, in the sense that none of this is included explicitly in the program: The CoC is about being happier and more effective at work, Enlightened Living is about living your entire life with a different perspective. Practically, though, another relevant part of the quote is that you can’t make people more resilient, they have to do the work themselves; training is empowerment to enable people to do so. As a p.s., there’s a book nearing completion (Enlightened Living: A Book Of Being); happy to send you the draft first chapter, though that’s probably way beyond the brief!

Another feature of the quote is that it starts with the encouragement to plan (with others), and one caveat involves another confession: I don’t believe in planning, because it constrains your options to preferred outcomes. A personal example is deciding to move to NZ, buying a B&B after staying two nights. This might sound impulsive but what it really meant was taking the opportunity, free from adding in all of the fears and constraints that planning can impose. The trick is to get the balance, not acting impulsively but being open to the opportunities that are always presenting themselves. Carpe diem, but seizing while awake and detached!

From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Exactly. Nick and I say more than once in the book that people most often prioritize based on emotion rather than detachment – see for example p. 59, which culminates with the sentence ‘Instead of prioritizing according to what’s most important, try doing the reverse: begin by deciding what isn’t important and needs to be trashed.’

From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

I think this true of pop psychology (and a great deal of psychology generally, in my view!), to which I have an extreme aversion. Applied to science, it’s a little different: what is orthodox today will likely be transcended tomorrow by new findings, but science is cumulative and seldom involves a wholesale rejection of past findings. Newton’s laws of motion haven’t become clichéd by relativity and quantum mechanics because they are laws, but their understanding is more nuanced and enhanced.

From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

I would probably rephrase slightly: it starts with “that’s odd,” but when the implications are realized it has all the excitement of “Eureka!” A personal example: high scores on our new rumination scale led to delayed heart-rate recovery following exposure to a lab stressor. That’s odd/interesting, let’s do some more stuff. Hmm, it also prolongs cortisol secretion. Well, that’s even more interesting: adrenaline and cortisol are part of an essential alerting response that is adaptive, but not if it is sustained. More stuff: rumination compromises immune function. Maybe ‘acute stress’ isn’t stress at all, since the response isn’t sustained? In the absence of an actual demand, what might sustain it? Actually, we could just define stress as rumination! Eureka!

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Nice quote. Thoughts are cheap, anyone can have them, but without application they’re just thoughts.

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

A definition of Perfect Control, and the misapplication of attention.

Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be closely associated for an extended weekend of one-on-one conversation? Why?

That’s a big one, but probably Nelson Mandela because it wouldn’t be a weekend with a politician (can’t think of anything much worse!) but with a statesman who devoted his life to wisdom rather than bitterness. Nick captures the essence of the man in the wonderful quote on page 97 of the book.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

McGraw-Hill have forwarded various questions as part of their marketing effort, and one was similar to this – how to deal with people who are resistant to change. What follows is adapted from our answer to McGraw-Hill) .

There are wide individual differences in how people habitually respond to change, but it is important not to be too judgmental – in many cases they’re not so much obstinate as scared. One of the things we’ve suggested in Chap. 6 is that leaders need to take a leaf from counseling, which we’re using only as a metaphor – we certainly don’t mean having an open door for people to disclose endlessly, but rather developing a more sensitive approach to these individuals. There’s a common misperception that equates sensitivity with weakness, but it is quite the contrary; coupled with a detached perspective, it is by far the strongest place from which to lead. In one of our case studies (Chap. 5), we looked at what characterized leaders who received more positive feedback from their direct reports, and it turned out to be facets of emotional intelligence: expressing emotion appropriately, and being able to empathize without becoming over-involved (measured in our Profile with the Emotional Inhibition index and a combination of Detached Coping and Sensitivity).

Leaders who identify themselves with tough-mindedness may miss the fact that obstinacy about change might well be informed by anxiety, and this in turn may come about by these same tough-minded leaders not keeping their people sufficiently informed about change (the characteristics tend to co-occur!). The seeming obstinacy might equally be informed by the knowledge that despite three recent restructures nothing has really improved, so leaders do need to be able to take a detached view of what they’re trying to implement if there’s resistance to it – maybe it ain’t broke, so why are we trying to “fix” it?

The tendency to resist change is measured by our Flexibility scale – habitually low scorers dislike change and respond negatively to it. Flexibility is, however, a conditioned habit that can be changed, and building on the Resilience program and taking the steps we’ve suggested will help significantly. It is also important for leaders to not treat everyone the same: if as a leader you know there’s a member of your team who reacted badly to the last change, be prepared to go the extra mile with them this time round.

As an aside, another individual difference that is involved here is extraversion – extraverts will actively seek change, for biogenetic reasons that are demonstrable from anesthetic sedation thresholds. Might not want to go too far down this track, though – extraversion is a whole tome in itself; the key to it is described in the Appendix to the book!

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Uncertainty. It results at least in part from significant social and political change. In the UK that means Brexit, though interestingly the concerns expressed by many CEOs have so far not materialized. Further ahead, though, there are many populist leaders in Europe who may take their cue from Brexit, and the future of the EU and the Euro currency is uncertain. In the USA, the initial misgivings about a Trump presidency seem to have mutated into a more optimistic wait-and-see, but again there is great uncertainty, especially if US policy becomes more protectionist and inward-looking. The global picture is equally unpredictable, particularly changes in China, where low-wage/high-growth is changing.

The interdependence of the US and Chinese economies (more than half of the US trade deficit is with China) means that relations between the countries will have a significant impact on business. Although the current climate is particularly uncertain, the unpredictability of the world is not new, and unfortunately, few CEOs can have much influence on wider global/political issues. However, they have an essential role in protecting both themselves and their people: a useful parallel is that while individual managers may not be able to change the climate of the whole organization, their influence on their team is substantial. The first step is to cultivate a detached perspective: when there is significant change, beware of allowing your response to be governed by emotion. Knee-jerk reactions end up just kicking over whatever’s in front of you.

At the same time, be prepared and stay informed – as we’ve said, fatalism is fatal, and action is needed, but action informed by reason; and reason is synonymous with detachment. When there are changes, make sure they’re communicated clearly to everyone in the company, taking account especially of Nick’s point, that all too often the emphasis is on what’s going to change – more often that not, more stays the same than changes. People don’t like change because it makes them anxious about what they can’t foresee or control, and implementing the steps we talk about in Chapter 6 will help enormously to mitigate that anxiety.

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Derek invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Challenge of Change link

His blog link

Work Without Stress’s Amazon link

Center for Creative Leadership link

Link to “Wake Up! The Surprising Truth about What Drives Stress and How Leaders Build Resilience” white paper pdf

Link to three film clips from Bridge of Spies


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