There is a general opinion that pressure is something negative and needs to be avoided. But if you are trying to meet a deadline, push up sales for the quarter and generally get above average results, a little stress could do the job. It is a necessity if you are trying to transform your business or expand into new territories.
The most positive form of stress is when an employee tries to do their regular duties in a new environment. Thus, the employee still does what they are used to and what they are good at, but meeting new challenges. The latter breaks mindless and counter-productive habits imposed by inertia and routine.
On the other hand, if the stress levels are too-high, the impact is negative. People become too much under pressure to come up with good ideas, they are too busy with frenetic but ineffective activity.
The best approach is to find the happy medium between the extremes. A stress level that creates positive pressure and not causing the negative effects – even increases productivity and efficiency.
How do we find that positive stress level? First, we need to assess the current state.
- Watch for people who are too comfortable. They by default resist the need to change, do not commit themselves as they really could, do things just “the way we used to do it”.
- Identify people who are under too much stress. Some people will have an obvious stress response, others will direct the stress inwards. What is looked for is deviation from the normal behaviour. Working longer hours, failing to take breaks, behaving irritably with coworkers. The sign might also be that someone is becoming suspiciously quiet, they do not look for interaction or just look seized by fatigue.
Increase the frequency and pointedness of coaching. The moment an employee knows you are watching over, stress levels will rise. The optimal stress level is achieved as the manager increases the level of feedback, but decreases the intensity (deadlines, result expectations).
Connect the person’s behavior to something bigger and more important. An employee needs to understand the link between their performance and the organization’s achievements. Seeing the results of a personal effort in the bigger picture would cause positive stress and a much better motivation.
Allow a natural negative consequence for a lack of action. A manager oriented towards results will often step in immediately and fix the problem to avoid a bad outcome. Such a behaviour only reinforces employees’ perception that a change is not needed. When such a situation occurs, leave the things to lead to a negative consequence, so that the team experiences the need to take responsibility. Of course, a manager may do that in a passive manner if the consequences does not endanger a critical project or relationships with partners.
Provide frequent positive feedback. A manager should coach frequently in order to increase the sense of accountability. Taken to a higher level, a manager should be focused on reinforcing small victories and success along with helping with problem solutions. Your team must feel that they are making progress and succeed in what they are doing.
Break the problem into smaller pieces. Watch out for signals that the employees are shutting down in front of an increased challenge. This could lead to a stagnation and losing control along with the demotivating effect of facing too big a challenge with no success. The manager’s approach might be to assign each person on a specific part of the project. Another approach might be breaking a project into sequential steps and focus one at a time.
Add structure to the problem. Looking constantly over potential problems just to jump in and solve problems sends wrong messages to the team. This might help to get the job done but creates long term problems with accountability and the options to delegate tasks. Go a bit further than just helping with the problem and help out your team to manage themselves. If a an employee is too much stress out to solve an issue, provide coaching and directions so that they could manage themselves. This would build a more efficient team.
Model confidence. The emotions in your team could be influential and take over the course of your enterprise. A manager must show with words and body language the belief that everything will work out. A calm and decisive behaviour could keep stress levels low when there are problems and high magnitude challenges. Running around like a headless chicken would incite panic and inefficiency.
Regardless if the stress level is high or low, the manager’s job is to monitor constantly and make the necessary corrections. A team is best to be within the productive range of distress. This is the zone where efficiency is best and positive changes happen.