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Beating Stress Doesn’t Require Superhuman Feats

By Thomas Coyle March 25, 2016

Everyone knows pressure can kill you.

But before it gets to that stage it can mar your business and wreck your home life. That’s why there’s a niche in psychology dedicated to helping financial advisors cope with pressure on the job.

“I personify pressure as a villain,” says Hendrie Weisinger, a psychologist in Westport, Conn., who works with FAs. “He’s a downgrader and he’s out to sabotage your life.”

Weisinger was reared on such analogies. His father, Mort Weisinger, was a longtime editor of the Superman series at DC Comics, where he also co-created characters like Aquaman and Green Arrow.

“There’s a myth about pressure, that it enhances performance,” says Weisinger. “It doesn’t. Look at Reggie Jackson, Mr. October. His batting was actually worse in the playoffs. Derek Jeter was remarkable because his performance was consistent in the post-season. Just consistent. Pressure makes most people do worse.”

Besides compromising performance, pressure “bends ethics” in ways that can lead to legal troubles for advisors, according to Weisinger.

“It’s the same reason smart kids cheat on tests. A parent says, ‘Hey, if you do well on this hard test, we’ll buy you that computer game you want.’ The test is hard. The kid wants the game.”

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Though FAs face intense pressure from clients to deliver on investments or lose the mandate, Weisinger is quick with a reality check: “They’re not Navy Seals or New York City firemen. They come under pressure to produce, but it’s not do or die.”

In turn, understanding they’re in a relativity low-pressure job can help them avoid the temptation — encouraged at many firms — to compete, whether it’s with other advisors, the market or their clients’ already lofty expectations.

“At some of the big firms the bar was set years ago by advisors who were maybe more blue collar than they are now,” says Weisinger. “I’m talking about very competitive Seventies street guys, and for them maybe it really was fight or flight, do or die.”

It’s a perception of investment professionals which persists to this day and is commonly reinforced in film and television. In premium cable channel Showtime’s latest original series, Billions, one of the principal characters is a psychologist employed full time at a hedge fund to deal with the big personalities of the firm’s traders and portfolio managers.

But nowadays success comes from “a mindset of excellence rather than a ranking mindset,” Weisinger says: “In being the best you can be, you do the best for your clients, and that’s how rewards come your way. It doesn’t come from worrying about the other guy.”

Similarly, FAs can keep job-related performance anxiety at bay by approaching prospect pitches and presentations as opportunities rather than obstacles.

“The trouble comes from seeing the event in terms of singularity — like there won’t be another chance,” says Weisinger. “There will be. You need the mindset that there will be multiple opportunities, and that something good will come from every effort.”

Psychologist Alden Cass often works with FAs who feel paralyzed by pressure — external or self-imposed — to bring in new clients and retain existing clients. To cope, many self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, further undermining their effectiveness and cratering their personal relationships.

For Cass, who’s based in New York, the culprit is the “all or nothing thinking” inherent in many advisors.

As an example, Cass says an advisor will “hyper-focus on one negative data point” — say, losing a client — and ignore the overall good health of a practice built on happy and loyal customers.

“It’s a bearish cycle of thinking that leads to depression,” says Cass. The matter is exacerbated for advisors because they work “in an industry where there is so little control” over major performance drivers like markets and the economy. “The only thing you can do is learn to control your emotions.”

As a start, he gets FAs to put their thoughts on paper and discusses their findings with them as a means to getting them to see things in a more positive light.

From there, things can get quite practical.

“What’s next comes in the form of directives,” says Cass. “Get to the gym, get enough sleep.”

The overall point, says Cass, is to help advisors understand “how to manipulate their thoughts for the better.”

For the high-end wealth managers psychologist Gary Shunk works with, the prospect of losing a rich family’s business is a significant and persistent source of anxiety.

“I think the statistic is 90% of families drop their advisors when the patriarch or matriarch passes away,” says Shunk, who’s based in Chicago. “It’s a real problem.”

As a relief to this pressure, Shunk helps FAs become better listeners.

“Every client has a story and in that story is the key to what matters to them most,” says Shunk. “If you can hear it, and respond to it, you’re meeting their needs and not just coming in with products.”

To bridge generations in a client family before one generation succeeds another, Shunk encourages advisors to meet with the whole family with a view to “helping them all have a voice.”

Adds Shunk: “If as a financial advisor you’re really listening. You’re not selling anymore. You’re co-designing solutions — and that alleviates a lot of stress.”