Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 46;   November 16, 2005: In the Groove

In the Groove

by

Under stress, we sometimes make choices that we later regret. And we wonder, "Will I ever learn?" Fortunately, the problem usually isn't a failure to learn. Changing just takes practice.

When a ship enters the Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal, there's risk to both ship and lock. A few feet to port or starboard can make the difference between a safe passage and a dangerous collision with one of the lock walls. That's why the locks have guide walls, or fenders, that jut out from the lock entrance at about a 45-degree angle, roughly in the shape of a V.

The Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal, showing their guide walls

The Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal, showing their guide walls. Photo courtesy Beauchamp Tower Corporation

These walls guide errant ships toward the lock, making sure that the ship is "in the groove." Scott Acone of the US Army Corps of Engineers explains that the structure "…ensures that the ships make it into the passage without a direct hit on the lock itself. They ensure a more glancing blow, which doesn't damage either the ship or the lock."

Our minds have "guide walls" too. When we've used a particular behavior frequently, we develop "grooves" that make it easy to find that behavior again without thinking. But there's a price — when we aren't thinking clearly, the only choices we can make are those that require no thinking. And the patterns we're most likely to find are those with the most effective guide walls.

Under stress,
we sometimes behave
like children. Why?
Under stress, we tend to use behaviors that we learned long ago and that we've used a lot. And those behaviors tend not to be the ones we learned more recently, as mature, thinking adults. Instead, we find more easily the behaviors that we learned long ago, as children, when our choices were more limited. That's one reason why, under stress, we sometimes do behave like children.

Where do your guide walls take you? We're all unique. Some popular destinations are anger, helplessness, abusing others, wackiness, retreat, hero worship, medication, stuckness, and complexity. You probably know yours — maybe too well.

Here are some tips that can help you find the choices you'd like to make instead.

Learn to notice stress
Canal locks have much more protection than just guide walls. There are lights and buoys and other warnings that alert pilots to the approaches.
Knowing that you're stressed is the first step to better choices. Learn what your own stress symptoms are, and practice noticing them.
Slow down
Canal pilots ease their ships into the locks very carefully. They need time to make course corrections.
If you notice that you're stressed, slow down. Breathe. Give yourself time to make better choices.
Accept the need for practice
The guide walls at the Gatun Locks are massive, and took time and tremendous effort to build.
Our guide walls aren't physical walls, but building them takes time, too. We build them by choosing consciously, and by observing our own progress.

Changing — building new guide walls — takes practice. That's why every stressful situation is a gift. It really is your only chance to practice. Go to top Top  Next issue: Training Bounceback  Next Issue

Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunLove the work but not the job? Bad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? This ebook looks at what we can do to get more out of life at work. It helps you get moving again! Read Go For It! Sometimes It's Easier If You Run, filled with tips and techniques for putting zing into your work life. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenWMdIJPaITSTTnoinner@ChacGprBJqZMsTjTBLJWoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Sun doing a loop-de-loopA Message Is Only a Message
When we receive messages of disapproval, we sometimes feel bad. And when we do, it can help to remember that we have the freedom to decide whether or not to accept the messages we receive.
A red-tailed hawkAppreciate the Moment
Often, we focus our awareness where we aren't or when we aren't. Whether we're in a heated meeting, or blowing out the candles of a birthday cake, being fully present can make our experiences more positive and memorable. Why are we so often someplace else? When we are, how can we come back? Or better, how can we stay fully present when we want to?
The George Foster Peabody AwardIllusory Incentives
Although the theory of incentives at work is changing rapidly, its goal generally remains helping employers obtain more output at lower cost. Here are some neglected effects that tend to limit the chances of achieving that goal.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnnoyance to Asset
Unsolicited contributions to the work of one element of a large organization, by people from another, are often annoying to the recipients. Sometimes the contributors then feel rebuffed, insulted, or frustrated. Toxic conflict can follow. We probably can't halt the flow of contributions, but we can convert it from a liability to a valuable asset.
Eastern Redcedar in crossection, with white sapwood on the outside edges, and red to deep reddish-brown heartwoodThe Retrospective Funding Problem
If your organization regularly conducts project retrospectives, you're among the very fortunate. Many organizations don't. But even among those that do, retrospectives are often underfunded, conducted by amateurs, or too short. Often, key people "couldn't make it." We can do better than this. What's stopping us?

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Artist's concept of possible colonies on future mars missionsComing June 28: Tackling Hard Problems: I
Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps. Available here and by RSS on June 28.
Artist's depiction of a dust storm on Mars with lightningAnd on July 5: Tackling Hard Problems: II
In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenbpYikUNMFBvKWVAvner@ChacUwvUcHrWtQQxRPTxoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.