Unhealthy Stress

Managing Stress

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

I’ve noticed that much of what I write about and read about around the topic of leadership has implications for reducing human stress levels. I can see it at work in the personal and professional lives of the men and women whom I mentor and coach. For example, I’ve lately been focused on working with leaders to implement leadership at every level of their organizations. That means giving control to others. In turn, that requires that we ascertain that our people have the technical competency to complete their assignments as well as the clarity of vision and values to make the “right” decisions on their own. In the beginning, this creates a huge amount of stress to the organizational leader. Yet, as the implementation succeeds, stress goes down, way down.

As the leader finds that giving control away actually puts her/him more in control, they gain better balance in their day, reduce their own stress levels and therefore their leadership team is less stressed. This wave of reduced stress cascades throughout the whole organization. This isn’t hypothetical, I see it actually working first hand. And it’s also not a trivial improvement. Science shows us that less stress means healthier people. Healthier people means a reduction in medical expenses and an increase in productivity.

Another example is employing technology to improve productivity. Stress usually increases dramatically as we introduce technology. What can stress an organization more than the implementation of an Enterprise Resource Planning System (ERP)? Yet a year after the successful installation, assuming no other large stressor has taken over, employees are less stressed by the deadlines and manual labor with which they previously dealt.

We could go on with things like proper training, making sure people are given autonomy, provided opportunities for mastery and have a clear purpose in their assignments; but I think you get the idea. My point is that it seems clear to me now that if leaders start looking at their organizations with an eye to reducing the stress in people’s lives, they will inevitably have a highly functioning team. It’s important that we focus on reducing, not eliminating stress. And another subtlety is that not only is some stress needed to make sure we meet goals and deadlines, but there is evidence that there is good stress and bad stress.

The question for us then is are we creating unnecessary stress in our own lives or the lives of others? Do we insist on a hectic workplace in the mistaken belief that a “sense of urgency” demands frenetic activity? Do we allow poor processes to continue to avoid the near term stress of making a change? Do we allow teams to overcomplicate processes out of a false sense of importance?

As I said earlier, I believe that if we look at our organization from a systems point of view and make changes to reduce stress we will automatically wind up simplifying and optimizing processes while at the same time increasing effectiveness and enhancing the lives of our people.