The stressfulness of stress

Apr 12 2012 by Duane Dike Print This Article

We all know that stressful environments are bad for productivity and quality of work. Research has shown that stress can be a motivator under some circumstances, but not all. Good stress is usually related to the work itself, like for those in police and fire jobs. However, stress can be severely damaging particularly when the cause is the behaviour of your boss.

Leader behavior
It's introspection time, that moment we as leaders look at our true selves (and sometimes I don't like what I see). We are accountable for our behavior; therefore we must recognize our weaknesses and do everything in our power to reverse those shortfalls and change the way we interact with fellow employees.

The single most important factor for maintaining environments that are friendly, supportive, collaborative, and fun is leader behavior. In effect, it's a leader's job to personify all that is good about intended organizational culture, or brand.

Picture an organization like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This organization is outward focused with the purpose of promoting education and healthcare, and reducing poverty. Therefore, the expectation for leaders in an organization like this is that they are friendly, supportive, and collaborative in non-defensive, non-accusatory, culturally reflective ways. If a leader fails to promote this image, all heck can break loose (aka, stress).

Positive leader behavior enhances work climates. The results of positive enhanced work climates are job satisfaction, reduction in boss-induced job stress, employee loyalty to the organization, and feelings of organizational pride. The opposite is also true, that the results of negatively perceived organizational culture are job dissatisfaction, lack of commitment, alienation, and stress.

The common denominator for each condition, positive or negative, is leader behavior. An emotionally sensitive boss will behave in just the right ways to stir up extrinsic and intrinsic sources of morale.

Things leaders can do (and not do)
The secret to effective leader behavior is as much in what to do as what not to do. On the not-to-do side, bosses must take care to avoid thinking of employees as untrustworthy, suspecting them of selfish motivation, or accusing them of acts sourced in rumor. The overused adage of perception is reality goes both ways. Managers typically think of perception based understanding from their perspective. However, employees also form pretty strong perceptions, or conceptions, based on boss behavior.

I would rather spend more time on the to-do side of leader behavior; it's much more fun. Some of the things leaders can do to improve employee satisfaction and, therefore, productivity and quality are:

1. Leaders should allow small group conversations where co-workers can solve issues with their friends and cohorts. Employees are more likely work in emotionally intelligent and intuitive ways supporting the larger purpose of the job when they commune in family-like environments.

2. Leaders should be inspirational, which takes equal parts charisma, intelligence, and emotional sensitivity. Managers don't really motivate, they inspire. Motivation is an internal quality which grows in environments where clear paths are identified and employees are allowed to use their own thinking powers.

3. Leaders need to focus on problem prevention instead of problem solving. Sure, this idealistic setting may be impossible to achieve, but working toward problem preventing mindsets can benefit emotional cultures, thereby reducing stress. The windfall of problem prevention environments is that change becomes a lot less stressful, almost becoming an expectation in everyday life.

4. Leaders must control change making it an everyday part of life so that unpreventable paradigm shifts are less taxing on emotional health. Environments in constant five-alarm-fire mode are anything but progressive. Change is difficult because it removes people from comfortable settings. Approaching change from an infusion perspective can be calming so that when the big changes do hit, employees are ready to adopt and adapt.

5. Leaders need to understand the business and be on the floor in ways that help them relate to workers. When leaders only occasionally drop by, and even then only to correct or judge, workers will look at them with suspicion. However, when leaders visit often, they become part of the daily operating culture and are welcome guests to the family of workers.

Managing stress
How business leaders manage employee stress correlates to productivity and quality. Unfortunately, most stress in the workplace is not mitigated by manager behavior, but caused by it. Leaders, in how they run their businesses, are their own worst enemies. Nit-picking, super-controlling, hyper-investigatory, and negative agenda behaviors squelch employee self-confidence. We used to call this kind of behavior micro-managing.

A leader's purpose is not to point out everything that's bad in an organization. Instead, good leaders inspire, moving the team toward productive results. Good leaders establish cultures of high morale. If employee mood is low, the cause is most likely related in some way to leader behavior.

While it might be a bit Pollyannaish to think that all negative components in a workplace go away in cultures of high morale, research has shown that workers take more accountability for their work when they are happy. If they are happy, they will be more productive with fewer errors and things for bosses to complain about.

Every negative remark strikes an irreparable blow to employee memory banks. Negative comments hit the same areas of the brain as physical pain. Repair from those negative remarks is slow, if at all. Hit a dog with a newspaper just once and that dog won't trust you, or the newspaper, ever again. That's sad, because the same thing happens to workers in the workplace.

If leader behavior doesn't personify environments that are friendly, supportive, and collaborative, the little things that bug workers become huge, uncontrollable beasts, attacking morale at every chance.

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About The Author

Duane Dike
Duane Dike

Duane Dike is the manager of creative production for a large entertainment company in Southern California. He has a doctorate in management and organizational leadership and an MBA in management. He is a popular guest speaker for education and management groups on subjects related to innovation, leadership and thinking.