Author Talks: How minor stresses add up to epic fails

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Lucia Rahilly chats with Rob Cross, the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College and the cofounder and director of the Connected Commons consortium. In his new book, The Microstress Effect: How Little Things Pile Up and Create Big Problems—And What to Do about It (Harvard Business Review Press, Spring 2023), cowritten by Karen Dillon, Cross explores the power of cultivating resilience and relationships to minimize “microstress” and maximize well-being. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why did you write this book?

I had been studying what I call more successful people, people who are considered to be high performers in their organizations across more than 300 of the world’s best organizations. And what I could see was that, incrementally, all the changes we’ve been making have really started to drown people in collaboration. I started to discover that people were really struggling. I wondered, if all these organizations are trying to think about avoiding burnout, and yet it’s still happening at such a big rate, then what is it about the relationships around us that are hurting our well-being? What are the more successful people doing to rise out of that and invest in connections that are generating different aspects of well-being?

What is it about the relationships around us that are hurting our well-being?

How do our relationships—help or hinder—our well-being?

Everything I do is focused on the role of the relationships and how they affect people’s well-being. Studies show that having positive relationships in your life matters more than cholesterol in your 50s, for example. If you look at the absence of relationships in your life, people who you can confide in, the mortality rate is as great as two packs of cigarettes a day.

We have all this evidence that shows the loneliness epidemic and that people are losing these connections. Yet there is very little understanding of what’s happening in those relationships or how people build them, and what happens if they fall out of and can’t get back into these groups that are so life sustaining. We started this study by looking at all the reasonable ways that relationships can affect well-being. It boiled down to the fact that they play a role in our physical health, our growth, our purpose in life, and our sense of resilience.

There is very little understanding of what’s happening in those relationships or how people build them, and what happens if they fall out of and can’t get back into these groups that are so life sustaining.

Strong work relationships help—but are they enough?

I’m starting a multihundred-person interview study. The very first subject was a life science executive in London. I asked, “Tell me about a time when you were becoming more physically healthy.”

This woman said, “You know, Rob, I was the person who dodged gym in high school. Every chance I could, I avoided physical activity. And that worked for me up until about my mid- to late 30s, when all of a sudden, my health was declining.”

That’s what we see in all the statistics. When life and work are really ramping up in a big way, people start falling out of the groups that keep them healthy in different ways. But she started walking around a park outside her flat in London. She began bumping into other people who were walking at the same time. So they started talking, then they started extending their walk. They moved it to a slow jog and then a charity run.

Ten years later, when I was talking to her, this was a woman who was planning vacations with her husband where they would run a marathon first and then go on a vacation. And this is the person who dodged gym in high school. But the real thing it did was put her in a context of other people who were very different from each other. She’s spending time with a mail person, an IT executive; they get in these deep conversations.

Having that dimensionality and not just being completely ensconced with other life science executives helped her. It helped to have people who are happier and healthier have at least two and usually three groups outside of their profession that they’re an authentic part of.

What exactly is microstress?

Microstress is different than conventional forms of stress, where we think of large things that are hitting us, or antagonistic relationships. The reality is that microstress can actually come at us and often does through the people we love and care about.

The fact that microstress is actually coming at us through people we care about, that magnifies it—the impact on us. It’s not just bad news out there on social media. It’s the fact that our child is struggling, or our parents are struggling, or a best friend had a health scare. The hard part that has shifted today, and especially through COVID, is the collaborative footprint of almost everything we do has shot up. That’s the biggest driver: that has ramped up 50 percent or more for most people these days.

The problem is that we are hit with 20, 25, 30, sometimes more of these microstresses in small moments. We’re conditioned to kind of fight through. But our bodies absorb it. The stress actually even affects metabolically how we process foods. There was a great study done that showed that when you’re under this form of stress, you can eat a meal and the way your body metabolizes that meal, it adds 200-plus more calories with the stress than it would without the stress.

So there’s a lot of negative consequences that are coming from these small moments of microstress. And the problem, again, is that we don’t register them. They sit beneath our level of awareness to say, “This is a really critical thing that I have to go do something about.”

How does microstress affect us at work?

We’re all talking about the burnout rate and utter exhaustion. But the exact flip side of the coin is that we’ve never had more ability to shape what we do and who we do it with today. Yet, we give it up very quickly.

There are five of these interactions that tend to drain capacity. One is small misses from teammates at work. By small misses from teammates, I mean it’s not so much the big slacker on our teams. Today, people are not on just one team. They may have one primary team, but then they’re put on five, six, seven other efforts. If you happen to own one of those efforts, where there are four people, because they’re under pressure, those four come back 95 percent done at the end of the day.

It seems like a small miss, but four people times 5 percent each means a 20 percent impact on you. Then people are stuck with a decision: Do I work harder through the night and put in heroic effort? Most people choose that route. Alternatively, do I underdeliver or call out small items? The problem with the heroic-effort route is that you’ve taught people, OK, 95 percent is good enough, so maybe 90 percent next time.

I say this not because people are nefarious. It’s because we’ve created these organizations where there’s just too many things we’re asking of people. They’re making decisions on which balls to drop and not where to excel. So what you need is to have mechanisms in place that hold that accountability in a way that doesn’t require you to go to each of those people individually.

So we see small things like restating expectations. Save ten minutes at the end of each meeting to restate expectations. Make sure people are clear on commitments, so that the following meeting opens with a quick summary of where you are against where we are planned to be. What you’re trying to do is avoid that slow slippage of commitment.

Is gender a factor in microstress?

There is a definite tendency for women to absorb more of the collaborative demands than men over time. That creates conditions for greater microstress as well as managing two personas, at work and at home, a little bit differently. The interesting thing, though, is that women are much more likely to maintain a broad set of connections that provide a great form of social support and resilience.

Men are very good at figuring out networks that help them get work done or accomplish something. Then they tend to home in on everything else with one or maybe two other people, whereas women tend to have more diverse networks. Women seem to know how to tap into them in those moments for better support.

How do top performers manage microstress differently?

I joke a lot that I haven’t seen a chief collaboration overload officer in any organization. We’re drowning in all these touch points that create that stress. It’s that strategy of, find some stressors that you can shield against, find some to stop causing, and find some to start rising above.

It’s that third strategy that really matters the most. Find ways to rise above. You can chip away at some of it, but you also have to take control of life. Happier people have at least two, usually three, groups that they’re an authentic part of outside of their profession.

If you’ve fallen out of groups, there are three approaches. The first is to reflect back on a passion you had in the past and use that to slingshot you into a new group. The second is to reach back to ties that have become dormant, such as college friends, and find ways to reignite them.

Third, think about what I mentioned with that marathon runner. She took what she was doing already and found ways to pivot it in ways that pulled her into spheres of life where she found greater purpose.

How do the best manage microstress at moments of transition—a job change, for example?

The disruption of networks hits people more than they think. And when you’re pulled out of it, you realize, I don’t have those friends at work,” or “I don’t have that confidant,” or “I don’t have this level of expertise to turn to.” We’re seeing that even things like lack of trust is one of the microstresses.

It’s not mistrust; it’s not that I don't trust you. It’s that I have not been around you enough to know what your capabilities are, how to rely on you, what your working style is, and if you have a sense of concern for my own well-being, too.

The lack of trust that then creates greater need for me to have to follow up more, monitor more, do all these other things that add stress into the work. If someone is coming into an organization to replicate the connectivity of a higher performer, some people take typically three to five years. Yet we’ve studied the people who do it in nine months and manage to break that mold much more quickly.

One of the things they do is build trust in themselves far more rapidly. The biggest thing that I learned through this work is, when people went through large transitions, some went into that saying, “I’m just going to master the job first. And when I get that done, then I’m going to become myself again. Then I’m going to reinvest in the things that kept me human and whole.”

But they never did. They became, over time, narrower and narrower versions of themselves. In contrast, I saw people who would go through those transitions, and despite all common sense, they would lean into it and say, “I’m going to get the job right, but I’m also going to invest heavily in the community here.”

Whether it’s through athletics, spiritual pursuits, music, religion, whatever, it would look overwhelming if you’re standing from the outside or to those people. But what they always did is work will expand or contract a lot based on how much we show up.

We like to think it’s all necessary, but we’re not really that critical half the time. If I shared advice, it would be to lean into those transitions and find ways to become larger versions of yourself at each point.

Everybody who did that well just discovered different things that brought them joy, or different ways of showing up at work that were equally valuable. Everybody who did the reverse, saying, “I’m going to perfect the work sphere first and then lean back out,” they couldn’t get back in.

What surprised you most in writing this book?

The idea of microstresses. That wasn’t what we started looking for. We started looking for the relational drivers of well-being. Then we saw that 10 percent of people never went south in the interviews, and we almost titled the book The Ten Percenters, because they were doing these things to keep greater dimensionality in their lives. They used small moments to live more richly with other people. Not big things.

We’re told that we need accomplishments—that happiness is on the other side of accomplishment—or that we need big things. What I found was that’s not the case at all. It’s that the relationships are critical and the small moments are critical.

That’s the secret I see in this: it’s the people who live those small moments more authentically and richly with other people, typically. The small, micro moments are the answer as well as the problem in different ways.

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