This is the English translation of an interview with the founder of Mentalakademie, Hermann Krottenmaier, which appeared in the business magazine FONDS exklusiv in May of 2013.
Do you control your thoughts, or do your thoughts control you? During times of crisis – be it in your professional or your personal life – it is important to become the master of your thoughts in order to not fall by the wayside.
For 30 years, Hermann Krottenmaier, 62, has practiced what he teaches his clients in business and performance sports: The key to business success, health and contentment is found in the head. Those who manage to consciously control their thoughts can develop their potential and actively counteract various stress diseases and symptoms of burn-out. In this exclusive FONDS exklusiv conversation, the founder of the state-recognized Mentalakademie Europa explains how we can permanently improve our professional and personal lives and experience more happiness and contentment.
FONDS Exclusive: Mr. Krottenmaier, you have coached numerous managers and entrepreneurs in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. What are the primary challenges that managers face these days?
Krottenmaier: Today’s managers have to master complex and multilayered demands, such as financial and economic crises, digitalization, globalization and also the distrust of top management and entrepreneurs on the part of their staff and the population at large. All this points to one thing: More than ever before, top managers are needed who display a responsible attitude, entrepreneurial spirit and a holistic perspective.
You have worked as a mental trainer for 30 years. Have the pressures and the performance expectations increased over that time?
Yes, since the dawn of the digital age, the demands on management personnel have risen enormously. In this age of accelerated global competition and real-time information flow, managers are required to make up to 200 decisions that are qualitatively high-value .
Not every manager can cope with such pressure and be effective in his leadership tasks. As a result, such managers also neglect the productivity potential of their staff, as the statistics of a recent Gallup poll show. According to this poll, 84% of employees in Germany feel no true loyalty toward their employer, and it is said to cause an annual economic loss of approximately 224 billion Euro, and which – according to those questioned – is due to poor management.
What are the results of excessive pressures in the workplace?
Managers who suffer from high stress tend to increase pressure on their staff, possibly because under stress it is difficult to sympathize with others. The results of pressure and fear are generally negative, and the old belief that fear of losing your job leads to better performance because one tries harder, is false. Pressure and fear lead to overstimulation of large regions of the brain. This causes concentration to falter and leads to more mistakes being made.
This has a direct impact on the quality of decisions made, correct?
Correct. Under pressure and fear, planning one‘s actions becomes difficult and you lose the capability to realistically estimate the consequences of your actions. Creativity is also lost because, under increasing pressure, old solutions are automatically chosen, which may no longer function these days because the world has changed so much. And the higher the fear, the more likely is a fallback on archaic stress coping mechanisms, such as attack, flight or a retreat into total rigidity. We either go into offensive mode, flee from a situation, or simply don’t know how to continue and retreat into inaction because it’s all too much for us. Today we call this the burn-out syndrome.
These days, pressure and stress have become part of daily life. What can we do to better deal with them?
Although stress is real, it does not mean that every stressed person develops stress symptoms; because it really depends on how we deal with mental pressures. Typical symptoms of stress, which we have all experienced, can show up as irritation, aggressiveness, disturbed sleep and difficulties with concentration, all the way up to blocked decision-making capabilities, mental overload, fear, increasing feelings of desperation, bodily tensions, headaches, stomach problems, elevated blood pressure, and finally burn-out, when nothing works any longer. The crucial point here is this: No matter how high the pressures from the outside, it is the inner pressure that leads to the symptoms I mentioned.
Just a minute – are you saying that stress has less to do with outer circumstances and more with how we deal mentally with those circumstances?
Yes, that is a very important point: ‘Home-made stress’ is the internal pressure that is created by our own thoughts. Let’s assume you have several projects to work on in the office. Instead of going to the office in the morning and tackling one project after another, you are more likely to be thinking first thing in the morning – or maybe even the night before – about all the things you need to accomplish. Your thoughts are a jumble and the message is “I need to do this, and then I need to get that done, and this…and that…how am I going to do all that….I hope I can manage…it will never work,” and so on. Such thoughts cost a lot of energy, so that at the end you are more exhausted, stressed and depleted from things you have not yet done, than if you had simply tackled the work in the first place.
The stress situation – high work demands – causes automatic thoughts and automatic behaviors to which the body reacts with the release of stress hormones. It’s the stress hormones which cause the above-mentioned negative emotions and stress symptoms. We are the ones who activate those stress hormones through the power of our thoughts.
How can I help myself become less stressed and less prone to illness? What specific strategies do you recommend?
Good time management can lower stress levels – in your personal and your professional life. Here, briefly, are a few suggestions: Set priorities. Respect yourself, take time for yourself. Learn to say no. Lower excessive expectations. Take breaks and plan personal time. Work and recreation should be in balance – “work-life balance”. Plan vacations and make sure they are relaxing. Healthy diet and exercise. “Listen“ to your body and note any pain or other abnormalities as a warning signal or hint. Make sure you see a doctor in a timely manner. Conflicts are part of life – deal with them openly. Do not fall into the perfectionist trap. And go on a media diet – instead of following every horror story, forget the news for a while and read only what is fun and joyful to you.
What about relaxation exercises?
Everyone relaxes differently. A quick, relaxing power nap or just a little break can help refresh you in between work activities – although this may not always be possible to achieve in our daily lives. Relaxation methods – such as progressive muscle relaxation according to Jacobson (different muscle groups are being tightened and then immediately relaxed), or autogenic training – work well for recuperation and relaxation. Also very important is sufficient exercise, because exercise reduces stress and is a significant part of managing stress. In addition, exercise releases the so-called happiness hormones, endorphins.
Would all this also help me avoid that notorious burn-out?
Characteristic of the burn-out syndrome is total exhaustion. The development towards total exhaustion can be observed long before it happens – through various physical and psychic symptoms. Certain factors influence the development of the symptoms; for instance, personal behavior patterns, but also professional overload or long-lasting problems in your personal life. Often, there is a combination of several factors that make it impossible to compensate for the stresses any longer. Take the above suggestions to heart as soon as you notice small discomforts, so that you can forestall burn-out. Don’t wait until it’s too late!
And if I already suffer from burn-out, how do I get rid of it?
Burn-out is not an inescapable fate. On the contrary: The chances of escaping the burn-out spiral are good. A medical diagnosis is the first step, followed by individualized treatment that is designed according to the personal circumstances and complaints of the affected person. Support from a psychologist or psychotherapy may be necessary.
What can I do to get the people in my circle to make changes?
One thing has to be clearly understood: You cannot change people directly. However, you can become a role model and begin to change your own perspective, your way of thinking, and your attitude. If you model a different attitude to your family and to your company, you make it possible for people in your circle to change their thinking and their perspective. If you want to change your environment, begin with yourself and be a good example. That’s the only way to change your personal and professional environment.
These days, an often-used buzz word is resilience. We need to build up inner reserves and resilience. How is that done?
These days, the word ‘resilient’ is used to describe people who know how to deal with professional stresses appropriately, and thereby maintain good psychological and physical health. These are people who are certainly conscious of their weaknesses, but manage to deliberately mobilize their inner reserves and resilience instead of focusing on their shortcomings. Here is an important point: Mental training is not about working through troubling experiences and thoughts, as in the case of psychotherapy, but about focusing on your own strengths and your vision of a positive future. It’s about strengthening strengths. Instead of shining a light on what is not possible, we shine a light on strengths and build on successes in order to create resilience. Mental training helps fully develop performance, creativity and motivation in individuals and teams!