Carol Cortiso l had been part of Money Shysters Inc. since it opened in 1990, so staff grew accustomed to bad moods, put downs, and general irritations at work, in much the same way you cope with side effects from annoying colds in winter. Few staff paid attention to her outbursts anymore, much less reacted to Carol’s daily doses of criticism for pretty much everything they did.
Annual certification day always came with especially damaging earmarks, and today was no different. Carol wore the face of a dinner roll when she walked through the front door, so people stepped o ut of her way, when she barked, “Let’s get going. This is a business not a hay seed factory.” It was one of her favorite sayings and nobody had a clue what she meant, but nobody dared ask.
Her polyester orange shirt clung to a rack of ribs much like the skeleton’s torso wired together in the foyer, as somebody’s idea of an early Halloween. Maybe it was mid-September, but Carol and Halloween fit together like lemons to juice.
It didn’t take much to crank Carol’s juices today either – especially when asked what time the Licensing Department would arrive for their annual certification analysis. Her knees gave out and she sat down using steel blue eyes to instill fear into staff, rather than her usual fast pointing fingers-in-the-face routine. Not much went right from the time Carol waltzed into work that day.
Mark arrived late and Shane ignored the telephone while he sipped coffee and caught yesterday’s news from The Wall Street Journal left by a client, who carried his complaints in personally because he couldn’t understand the foreign call center accents from India, where Carol had shipped all Money Shyster’s customer service problems to be resolved by strangers. In her best effort to create workplace calm, Carol hurled an earful of criticisms about Shane’s negligence, and then flashed a smile that could have passed for an ad at a toothpaste company. In much the same way, the old rattler held back yesterday’s complaining customer cornered until he dashed out the door mumbling something about going to her boss, she spewed contempt on Shane’s mistakes more with her glare today than her usual growls.
The call center based in India might have removed problems temporarily from Carol’s range, but her harebrained ideas for outsourcing complaints to India didn’t seem to be the best bullhorn for those abused by the Money Shyster firm in the long run. In fact daily piles of unanswered client complaints climbed up glass partitions between Carol’s office and the staff’s cubicles, faster than water rose in basement storage rooms when a flood wiped out the company’s complaint files a few years earlier.
She snapped her fingers as if to summon up order and sanity before the licensing crew arrived and when nobody came, she called the staff a bunch of slackers, threatened that bonuses this year wouldn’t buy them a jam sandwich, and suggested many of them should leave the company before they bring it down completely.
“Lovely top you have on,” Martha lied, as if looking for a promotion from secretary to mediator.
“Sale at the flea market?” Shane whispered.
“Yup. Fleas likely still in it.” Mark shot back.
Carol disappeared into the office she rarely left except to venture into halls a few times daily and grumble about their work. Whenever she passed people on frequent trips to the Restroom though, she publically protested about a nit-picking problem she’d noticed along the way. Desks were a mess one minute and workers were wasting time the next. Carol often complained that males felt threatened by her because she was smarter than them. These tirades found little response from guys like Mark and Shane, because they seemed so odd, nobody knew where to start with a quick comeback.
Until today, that is. Shane overheard Carol telling somebody on the phone that she wanted to impress Iggy, the nickname for the easy going middle aged guy who headed up the state certification board, and she’d plan to make a move on his empathy for her good work later that day. The rest of the conversation spoke of her own valiant efforts to bring the Money Shyster books up to snuff, in spite of her useless staff who came to work with a bag of rocks for brains.
This explained Carol’s brilliant idea to invite Iggy to stay on a bit at the end of the scheduled annual inspection, over a relaxed business gathering, with wine, conversation about how to improve the financial company, and hors-d’ouvres. She should have stuck to the wine and tactics for improvements though, because Carol’s hors-d’ouvres blew up, much like her moods exploded on a dark day.
She’d prepared veal hearts from one of those create-this-if-you-dare cookbooks mainly because its full page color caption seemed to shout that any deal was possible soon after garnished plates hit a well set table. Since Carol’s cooking skills are fair-to-middlin’ – and the recipe seemed simple enough even to skeptics, the staff agreed this sure shoe-in beat the possibility of flunking board certification for the second year in a row. Hope vanished when they saw what happened….
Directions stated to simply sauté veal with mildly spiced red sauce for an extended time. Then Carol’s secretary stuffed the whole mess into heart shaped papers she’d cut out ahead. Finally, she folded paper edges together to lock in sauces before she dropped two dozen veal hearts into boiling oil after certification team arrived in the staff room. According to Carol, they were to puff up – look spectacular – and certification would become a done deal. Then it happened.
The part Carol’s upper-cut-cookbook left out was the critical reminder that paper hearts must be cut from porouscooking paper. The secretary told how she’d noticed Carol’s recipe mentioned cooking paper. Apparently, it just hadn’t added the vital requirement that tiny holes be poked through cooking paper to allow in air. That small omission became dynamite firepower once veal hearts placed into boiling oil to expand artistically – now needed air to puff up without blowing up. Staff began to see the picture far ahead of Iggy and the team, who’d been looking at financial problems in Money Shyster’s books for the entire day.
Due to one small oversight, Carol’s well shaped hearts cut from typing paper – grew into lethal workplace weapons far bigger than problems she sought to hide from Iggy with fine food and wine.
Iggy, Carol and the certification team arrived in perfect timing, since Carol emphasized the importance of a relaxing atmosphere. As a final step to the ultimate certification meeting, Carol’s secretary dropped all the hearts filled with veal and spiced sauce into a large pot of boiling oil. Rather than puffed up hearts from heated oil, however, the hor-d’ouvres resembled helium balloons like the kind you buy in cheap party stores. The group never got to party stages though because what happened next was anything but festive.
While Iggy, Carol and the staff sipped wine and munched on mixed nuts – Carol’s secretary hit the stove area to complete one last step and finalize Carol’s highly planned business survival enterprise. That’s when the veal hearts struck back against all that the staff was feeling about Carol Cortisol’s leadership and phony conversations about Money Shyster’s policies.
Minutes after the secretary dropped typing paper hearts into the pot - they began to explode and as each missile blasted from boiling oil, it was as if somebody had jam-packed ammunition into the barrel of a canon and lit the wick. Veal hearts, aimed toward white walls and ceiling tiles flew between Carol’s polite concerns to Iggy, and her fiery eyes darting around seeking staff to blame for each thunderous pop. In panic Carol assured Iggy and his team that all was well under control, as she awkwardly dashed toward the performing pot. If she’d calmed the licensing team at all, it was not for long.
Within minutes … bright red splotches shot from the canon-like pot – as flying hearts turned the entire kitchen into a perilous war zone.
Carol offered to take Iggy out for dinner, which to staff sounded much like the beast asking for bribes to replace what should have been an effective workplace where customer’s complaints got attention and staff survived the market’s disasters. Iggy’s response came later in the week – but that night all you could see was a team of experts heading out the door as if somebody had pulled the fire alarm while yelling at the same time, “Run for your life.”
Things were pretty much back to normal for Carol and her staff the next day. Somebody suggested they cancel the staff meeting rather than tackle another batch of customer complaints, and people placed bets on incidents most likely to explode under Carol’s watch before they all punched out for the day.
Long before Carol arrives at work she’s fed up and already well into anxiety. She fears taking any career risks herself, and lambastes others who seek adventure when her down moods crank up her intolerance.
It doesn’t take much for Carol’s brain to stir up chemical hormones, and crankiness is the least of her problems when it happens. Her brain that pushes against relationships, leaks out any courage she may have mustered, stomps on solutions, and axes well being for everybody around.
Carol’s cortisol is a potent chemical that surges whenever she slips into stress, and is now recognized as a drug that can literally shrink her brain. It leaves other damaging footprints behind too, that luckily can be avoided whenever Carol grows awareness of its trickery. Researchers could have warned Carol for some time, for instance, that cortisol shuts down learning, creates anxiety attacks and can cause depression. Less known, until recently, are tactics to counter Carol’s cortisol surges.
Other’s try to cope and a few remind others that Carol’s cortisol has useful purposes, and they are correct, yet it’s little consolation. While it’s a short term chemical which was useful to treat Carol’s allergies, or zap her with energy to survive a few shocking moments at work, Carol’s cortisol also lowers her sensitivity to pain.
It helped her survive grief, and pulled her whole group through a short term pressure project, but there are costs. Long-term cortisol surges often, and Carol tends to maintain harmful levels, which can result in highly toxic behaviors at work.
Dangers to Carol’s own health, keep others concerned since research shows cortisol to:
Lower immune systems 2. Slow down thinking 3. Create blood sugar imbalances 4. Raise your blood pressure 5. Weaken muscle tissue 6. Decrease bone density 7. Increase fat to stomach areas.
Can you see why Carol reacts negatively when under the influence of harmful chemical surges?
To flee from and lower dangerous levels of cortisol, others try to get Carol to:
a. Relax, listen to music, take a walk, and run from stress. b. Spend time with upbeat people, laugh, and steer away from cynics. c. Manage time, create doable daily targets, and avoid overloads d. Take up a sport, do stairs, park far from doors and avoid passivity. e. Give away things, care, join Rotary, and run from financial anxiety. f. Teach from your strengths, inspire excellence, yet flee perfectionism. g. Propose winning solutions and avoid fixation on problems at work.
At times, Carol sees her problem, and thinks she has better alternatives than these, to sidestep cortisol’s confinement. Strange as it may seem, Carol’s key is to do the opposite of whatever creates cortisol. To do the opposite of a cortisol response, is to rewire her brain for more serotonin guided behaviors, for instance.
Luckily Carol’s brain also comes fine tuned for serotonin success, whenever she remembers to actually do healthier actions. For example, on a good day her brain can rewire dendrite brain cells for serotonin ’s well-being and for growth of plasticity in areas that had once caused cortisol imbalances.
It’s hardly worth an effort to make these changes, Carol complains, because she can’t think about the rewards, when she’s so depressed. People who do so, tell Carol, they tend to replace her kind of cortisol crankiness for serotonin serenity. Her reaction, Carol seems to be jealous of peers who come to work with lower levels of cortisol drugs, or seem to generate fewer fluctuating cortisol surges. Carol comments at times about how calmly and rationally other people react at work – even when hairy spiders strut past her feet
Spiders aside, research shows that 22 stressors will creep in on each of us - even on an ordinary day, and everybody suffers double when these stressors hit Carol.
Prompts for discussing cortisol as it comes to work with Blokes and Babes in your workplace:
Discuss what cortisol looks like in Carol’s brain, in yours and in others at your workplace.
Compare workplace cortisol problems with additional brain facts expressed in MITA Manifesto 1- 10.
Create a doable and innovative collaborative action plan to reduce cortisol and add to brainpower in your workplace.