Posts Tagged personal development

Handling Stress in the Office – ACCJ Workshop Wrap-Up

20150205_ACCJ_Stress_Workplace_Wrap-up_pdf

In February 2015, DELTANOMIX volunteered to deliver a workshop on “Handling Stress in the Office” to the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

Thank you to all workshop attendees for joining!

DELTANOMIX sincerely hopes that this workshop will help to successfully improve your stress management capabilities and resilience in order to maximize both your wellbeing and professional performance.

To download the Workshop Wrap-Up pdf document, click here or on the image at the top of this post.

Wrap-up pdf document table of content:

  • The impacts of a lasting exposure to stress  (page 4)
  • A simple practical definition of stress  (page 5)
  • Identifying the stress-related hazards  (page 6)
  • Overstressed: how to detect?  (page 7)
  • How to cope?  (pages 8-12)
  • Useful Resources and References  (page 13)

If you are interested in learning about the full workshop content, please contact deltanomix@gmail.com.

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Leader Checkpoint: 9 simple -but not easy- questions

Leader Checkpoint Business Teams Self

“In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.”

 Miyamoto Musashi (宮本 武蔵), famous Japanese swordsman (~1584-1645) in “The Book of Five Rings” (五輪書)

Abstract:

The more businesses urgency increases, the more important it is for business leaders and managers to regularly step back and reflect on the 3 cornerstones supporting the development of an healthy organization: the understanding of the overall business environment and related company directions, the appreciation of the company teams situation and the alignment with one self as part of the management team. Answering the questions from this post is a first step that should help any leader to initiate a deeper thinking exercise when and where required.

Download a one-page executive summary here (PDF or JPEG format): Leader Checkpoint: 9 critical questions

DELTANOMIX LEADERSYNDROME - Leader Checkpoint

Concept:

As leaders and managers, growing a sustainable organization requires to constantly align the company business, the teams in charge of delivering on the company mission and oneself. If only two of these three cornerstones are in sync, disaster is very probably a matter of time…

More concretely, imagine the result for your company, your teams and/or yourself in the following misalignment cases:

  1. Alignment between Business environment and Self but unsynchronized with Team: As a manager, you are fully motivated and aware of what you have to deliver with which support, with a clear understanding of your company priorities under the given business context, but your teams do no longer understand the company strategy and do not follow on the required organizational changes; key staff attrition increases rapidly…
  2. Alignment between Team and Self but unsynchronized with Business environment: Under your leadership, your team has reached a high level of maturity leading to strong performance; you have supported its development leveraging with agility on your management strengths and expertise while continuing improving on your weaknesses and you have built a solid relationship based on trust and respect with your team members. Nonetheless neither you nor your team understand any more what the customers expect and how the company is trying to answer to those new needs…
  3. Alignment between Business environment and Team but unsynchronized with Self: Your company has just identified new trends changing the landscape of your industry and is preparing the necessary organization adjustment; your team gets clearly why a change is needed at that stage but you are already over-loaded and do not know whether you would have the ability to lead an organizational change at this stage while handling in parallel some personal difficulties…

In order to (re)initiate the thinking process on those 3 cornerstones, answer the 9 questions below in the “Practice” section. To some questions, answers may pop instantaneously whereas, to some others, you may stay perplex. In any case, note down your answers; they can be used later as a basis for a deeper study by yourself, with your teams, management or peers. Take the time to run this checkpoint exercise once or twice a year at least (at a time and in a place where you can focus).

Practice:

  • exercise 1: Reflect on your business
    • What makes your organization unique in the value it delivers to its customers?
    • How does your organization anticipate and answer to the forces (re)shaping your ecosystem?
    • As part of the management team, what does your company expect you to achieve to support its mission in both a short-term and long-term perspective?
  • exercise 2: Reflect on your teams
    • If you’d ask each of your staff to explain in 2 minutes what your company position and uniqueness are, as well as what the expectation regarding their individual and team contribution in supporting the company mission is, what would be the result?
    • If you had to rebuild from scratch your organization, which of your current employees would you ask to join, in which role and why?
    • How does the development plan set for your teams and their members match the individual trajectories?
  • exercise 3: Reflect on yourself
    • What are your top 3 personal and professional successes and failures over the past 12 months?
    • What is the “one thing” that you want to achieve personally and professionally over the next 3 months, 1 year, 3 years, 10 years and how?
    • What are the intrinsic or extrinsic conditions that could prevent you from aligning with your company objectives and with your teams?

So What?

From your business universe, your teams, yourself, taking time to grasp the context and to understand the situation at hands is what will allow you to set the relevant action plan to support the development of your organization, teams and self on the long run. Running regularly a simple 9-question self-reflection on your business, teams and self can help you to identify areas to study and discuss in deeper details as a next step.

Last Revision: 2015 March 28

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One key rule for successful business interactions: be prepared!

Business Meeting Preparation

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

 Benjamin Franklin, author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat (1706-1790)

Abstract:

In sport, music, theater or many other disciplines, it is obvious that success strongly depends on the time spent preparing for the event itself. With no surprise, the same rule applies to business. In order to increase your chance of success, an efficient preparation should always include the following four components: Objective setting,  a thorough study of the Context for the expected event, Anticipation of what could go wrong and Rehearsal (OsCAR).

Download a one-page executive summary here (PDF or JPEG format): OsCAR for Successful Business Interactions

DELTANOMIX LEADERSYNDROME - OsCAR Business Interactions

Concept:

Looking at the players selected for the Olympic games or at the members of any well-known philharmonic orchestra, it is with no doubt that those high performers could reach this level of professionalism only through long hours of training, rehearsing and preparation. It is also obvious that their successes and performance are directly linked to the intensity and quality of their preparation work. In the same way, in an always more competitive business environment, becoming a champion requires a similar level of preparation, be it for giving or taking an interview, running a presentation in front of your board and your company shareholders, giving a demo to a strategic customer, negotiating a deal with a prospect, handling a difficult discussion with one of your team members, managing the triggering of your Business Continuity Plan during a crisis  and so on…

But more concretely, what does a preparation exercise bring to the table in the context of business interactions?

Among others, the following internal and external benefits can be identified:

  • synchronizing the understanding of a situation among various staff or teams which will allow to speak from a single voice once facing your external counterparts,
  • sharing/getting knowledge and increasing the subject matter expertise among the employees involved in the preparation meeting which will benefit your audience when running the real meeting,
  • getting exposed to various view points and learning to constructively debate and position within a group focusing on a common goal,
  • increasing the perception of professionalism for your contact when going through the official meeting or event,
  • gaining self-confidence and a feeling of control over the situation to come which will in return allow to decrease your level of stress and anxiety,
  •  bringing a level of comfort with the topic to discuss which will help to free up some cognitive resources to focus your attention on your interlocutor by improving your active listening ability…

What are the main rules for a powerful preparation?

  • Be conscious that running a preparation exercise is time-consuming, especially for key business events with many stakeholders involved. Make sure to book the necessary time in the schedule of all relevant parties long enough in advance, specifying the agenda for the preparation meeting using the OsCAR framework below,
  • The group of staff attending a preparation meeting may be larger than the group expected to join the real event. This mainly depends on the type of knowledge or information required to grasp the context of the event,
  • The recommended framework for a preparation meeting consists in four elements:
    1. Objective setting:
      • What do you want to achieve? (eg: convey a specific message during a presentation, get access to a decision-maker for a deal, understand the true motivation for a candidate to join your company…)
      • How will you specifically measure whether you have reached your goal? (eg: get a clear budget figure from your counterpart during  the meeting, get a specific appointment set as a next step, have your audience being able to summarize your message when asked…)
    2. Context study and understanding:
      • Who is your audience / interlocutor / counterpart? (background, existing relationship, area of expertise, personal interests, history, level of authority, level of influence…)
      • Why are they joining the meeting / presentation and what do they expect from it?
      • In case of meeting with a client or a prospect, what is the company business? What are their objectives?
      • What are the latest news about this company?
      • Who is their main competitors and how do they differentiate?
      • In case of existing relationship with your interlocutors, are they supporter, neutral or detractors? Are they satisfied with the product and related services?
      • What type of relationship do they entertain with the rest of your ecosystem (competition, providers…)?
      • You may add as many questions as necessary to get the best possible picture and understanding of the situation (or of the topic to present)…
    3. Anticipation of what could derail the course of the event:
      • List what could go wrong and review what the action course should be.
      • Which objections could you expect? How to handle those?
      • Review the 5 most realistic what-if scenario and prepare alternatives or answers.
    4. Rehearsal:
      • before starting your rehearsal, clarify the logistics (attendee list on your side, flow of the event, owner of the material preparation, set-up of the meeting room – power? internet? projector? microphone? … -)
      • depending on the type of event (one-on-one meeting, internal team presentation, client meeting, deal negotiation, external roadshow and demo…), you can of course use various methods for rehearsing: from standing alone in front of your mirror, to role-playing with colleagues or to go for a complete dry-run in the exact location of the event…
      • Obviously, the closer you get from the real conditions, the better!

Despite a thorough OsCAR preparation, things rarely go as per plan. Nonetheless, it is exactly because you have prepared with the relevant stakeholders that you will be in a better position to tackle any unexpected challenges. Being prepared will allow you to approach more openly, confidently and creatively those unavoidable surprises.

Practice:

  • exercise 1: Over the past 6 months, select the most important internal and external business interactions you had run and that had ended up successfully.
    • Describe what those two events were about and how it went?
    • How much have you prepared for each of those events?
    • What were the objectives and measure of success?
    • What was your level of stress and confidence when running each event?
    • Which image have you given to your interlocutor? How satisfied are you with it?
    • Could the outcome have been better? Why and how?
    • Could the result have been worse? Why and how?
    • If you had to do it again, what would you do differently in preparing for those events?
  • exercise 2: Over the past 6 months, select the most important internal and external business interactions you had run and that had failed.
    • Describe what those two events were about and how it went?
    • How much have you prepared for each of those events?
    • What were the objectives and measure of success?
    • What was your level of stress and confidence when running each event?
    • Which image have you given to your interlocutor? How satisfied are you with it?
    • Could the outcome have been better? Why and how?
    • Could the result have been worse? Why and how?
    • If you had to do it again, what would you do differently in preparing for those events?
  • exercise 3: Pick from your current to-do list the next key internal and external business interactions you will have to run. Use the OsCAR framework to prepare for those two interactions. Once the events are over, answer the same questions as the two exercises here above and compare the results. What do you conclude? Which actions will you take as a next step?

So What?

The art of running successful business interactions (from internal one-on-one discussions on one side of the spectrum to external strategic executive meetings and presentations on the other side) heavily relies on the science of preparation. While preparing allows you to gather the necessary information to get a clear picture on the situation, boost your knowledge and understanding of the topic at stake, share and discuss your views with the relevant internal stakeholders, it also gives you a better grip on what can be expected or what can go wrong during the course of the real event, thus making you ready to face the unexpected. Efficient preparation meetings can be based on a four-step approach (OsCAR): 1. confirm your goal and related measure of success (Objective setting) 2. study and analyze the situation and the background using all relevant sources and resources (Context) 3. identify the risks, objections or issues that can arise (Anticipation)  4. train through dry-run or role playing once the logistics is confirmed (Rehearsal). Using the OsCAR preparation framework should give you the peace of mind to join confidently any business interactions as well as provide you with the necessary resources to cope with the various challenges arising as your event progresses.

Last Revision: 2015 March 28

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Leadership and management styles: the “prêt-à-porter” collection

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

 Peter Ferdinand Drucker,  Austrian-born American writer, management consultant and university professor (1909-2005)

Abstract:

Getting the right things done can obviously be achieved in various ways:  a “command-and-control” directive approach based on the manager’s exclusive expertise, a participative team discussion leveraging on everyone’s knowledge and skills, a path shown in a convincing and energetic manner by a charismatic leader… While it is important to know the various management and leadership styles with their respective advantages and drawbacks, it is also crucial to recognize that the best leaders are often the ones who can navigate from one style to another, depending on the context.

Download a one-page executive summary here (PDF or JPEG format): Leadership and Management Styles

DELTANOMIX LEADERSYNDROME - Leadership and Management Styles

Concept:

The above matrix allows a simple positioning of 5 classical pairs of leadership / management styles based on two dimensions where:

  • the x-axis represents the orientation of the manager towards people (ability to communicate and establish rapport with others, strong interpersonal skills, ease of communication with various audience) or towards tasks (set distance in his interaction with others, focus on hard skills, expertise and knowledge)
  • the y-axis displays the inclination of the team leader to take a direct control on things (strong personal involvement, commitment to success and results through self-implication and direction setting for the team) or to let the control to his teams (results are targeted through the team work, manager steps back)

Note here that each pair of style represents a “at best / at worst” set of behaviors with an existing continuum between the two extremes.

  1. “Leader control / Task-oriented leader” Quadrant
    • authoritative leader:
      • is self-committed, gives instructions, structures the team activities, sets precise objectives, models behavior, defines detailed evaluation criteria, is solely accountable for decisions, uses a top-down approach
      • style is also known as directive leadership
    • coercive leader:
      • wants full-control, does not delegate, does not accept co-workers’ influence, requests tasks to be executed, builds his authority exclusively on his technical expertise, does not accept failure, always decides, does not listen
      • style is also called autocratic leadership
    • risks and recommendation:
      • while a directive leader can quickly deliver results under unstable conditions (reorganization, new team being set, business downturn), his management style may be challenged when working with senior expert team members.
      • even if the strict command-and-control approach of an autocratic manager can save the company from high-urgency crisis situation, this leadership style is proven not being sustainable on the long-term. It inhibits the employee’s will to contribute and creativity and consequently freezes the ability of the team to change and evolve for the better.
      • it is not uncommon to see authoritative or coercive managers becoming real bottlenecks if not a true risk for their companies, acting as “hero” leaders that the company can no longer run without…
  2. “Leader control / People-oriented leader” Quadrant
    • persuasive leader:
      • engages his team through cooperation, explains projects and values, stimulates, encourages, mobilizes his resources to mobilize his teams, consults for opinions and suggestions, remains accountable for every decision, is flexible on methods, supports co-workers’ initiatives and autonomy
      • if the persuasive leader is pulled at the far-extreme of the 2 axis (Leader control / People-oriented) , he will turn into what is commonly presented as a charismatic leader, knowing how to inspire and energize his teams thanks to his creativity, enthusiasm and convincing power.
    • utopian leader:
      • manages based on principles, mixes up explanations and adherence, puts his teams under pressure, does not accept differences, promotes changes for the sake of changing, sets unrealistic goals, does not take the reality into account, confuses innovation and creativity
    • risks and recommendation:
      • while a charismatic leader will excel in motivating his troupes by giving sense to their work, his followers may fall in the trap of blindly walking the path without questioning the direction, even if requested to do so.
      • a persuasive leader is also usually less interested in closely following-up project and related  activities; obviously this may come as a barrier for junior or less experienced staff who would require a closer guidance and coaching approach.
      • when becoming his at-worst version of utopian leader, the team’s motivation drastically drops while the frustration increases which quickly implies a higher staff turnover.
  3. “Employee control / Task-oriented leader” Quadrant
    • delegative leader:
      • defines the rules, the missions and the responsibilities, plans and organizes the team’s activities, sets an activity tracking system, delegates missions and responsibilities, gives autonomy, steps in only when required, fosters mutual respect through expertise
    • bureaucratic leader:
      • isolates himself from his teams, lacks involvement in transmitting decisions, does not control delegation in place, mixes up activity and result, manages activities rather than employees, communicates principally per mail, is too rigid in his definition of roles and functions, does not question the existing organization
    • risks and recommendation:
      • team respect will come from the expertise and high competency of this type of leader. People with less experience can appreciate the clarity of their duties while being guided. Nevertheless, this profile is in many cases less able to inspire his teams, to share a vision. Consequently, this style is not recommended for a team with low morale.
      • a delegative leader with high expectations tends to force the pace, expecting excellence and autonomy from all his staff. If this works well with experienced and motivated employees, this may be disturbing for less experienced staff who may start doubting about their own competencies and abilities to perform the job.
      • when turning bureaucratic, the manager will simply build a mediocre structure by retaining staff with low-ambition and by losing employees with high energy and who are eager to contribute in building further their company.
  4. “Employee control / People-oriented leader” Quadrant
    • democratic leader:
      • supports team work, offers collective projects, listens to the bottom-up flow of information, encourages teams to express freely, takes into account the individual needs, recognizes and grows his staff’s competencies, fosters a positive work environment, engages his teams in the decision-making process
      • style is also referred as participative leadership
    • affiliative leader:
      • tries to hide the reality of the hierarchy, prefers to satisfy requests or requirements in order to avoid disagreements, gives precedence to ambiance against results, is unclear on what is negotiable and what is not, systematically seeks for consensus, assists his co-workers rather than helping and growing them, avoids conflicts, does not tackle or postpone difficult or unpopular decisions
      • style is sometimes labeled as paternalistic leadership
    • risks and recommendation:
      • under stable conditions, the participative leadership style allows to build a sustainable structure through empowerment of the staff. The manager himself is no longer the key to the success of his team but the team itself becomes the key and can run with little guidance thanks to an “intrapreneurship” mindset progressively developed through coaching. On the downside, employees who expect or need clear guidance and close support may feel leaderless and lacking directions. This style is also often more time-consuming than a directive style.
      • when turning affiliative, the manager develops a nice “family” ambiance that can help to improve a team with low morale or lacking bonds but also takes the risk to decrease performance on the long run by accepting mediocrity in order to preserve the stability of the team at any cost.
  5. “In-between” Quadrant
    • adaptive leader:
      • adapts to the various situations, works in a trial-and-error approach, formalizes only what is required, negotiates objectives and methods, leverages the competencies of his teams and their complementarities, remains hands-on, grasps opportunities, looks for win/win solutions
    • opportunistic leader:
      • tries to find a compromise when time to take a decision, is not precise, always changes his behaviors, uses fake-democracy, insufficiently formalizes the practices, talks rather than acts, does not take clear commitments
    • risks and recommendation:
      • while the adaptive style is usually efficient at an individual level, it may still be perceived as confusing and lacking direction, especially if the objectives and missions are not sufficiently defined and set.
      • if falling into opportunistic behaviors, manager and team’s performances clearly decrease because of the too-many uncertainties and promises which are not executed on.

Seasoned leaders know from experience that excelling as a manager requires to navigate the above leadership styles matrix depending on the context, while staying crystal clear on what is negotiable and what is not with the team and its members. “Context” can be summarized here as the influence of the following factors:

  • organization / team missions and objectives
  • team maturity
  • team member individual situation: personality, role and responsibility, autonomy and competency for the required task or activity, motivation

Understanding those factors allows the leader to identify and use the most appropriate leadership style for a given staff at a given time for a given duty…

Practice:

  • exercise 1: To which quadrant of the leadership styles matrix do you belong to by default? Where do you position yourself on the “at best / at worst” continuum of this quadrant?
  • exercise 2: Reading the below sentences from various leaders, can you precise the management style?
  1. “You remember the training I gave on that new product we need to support, don’t you? I’d like you to be in charge of setting up and maintaining a test environment with that product for next month. You can get the support from the infrastructure team if required. Simply send me a weekly progress report and don’t hesitate to let me know if you get stuck somewhere.”
  2. “I don’t have the time for questions now. Do what I say!”
  3. “Guys, our sales funnel on this strategic product has been pretty low for the past four weeks. Can we sit all together tomorrow afternoon in order to identify what’s on the way of increasing our pipe here? Do not forget to come with your notes on the challenges or successes you had while selling this product; I’d like we share those to see what actions we could take as a next step so that everybody can meet their quota this quarter. Thanks”
  4. “Don’t ask me. Simply follow the procedure and enter a travel request in the expense system even for that half-day case you are referring to. I will log in the system in the next two days and check the details of your travel request. if I have questions, I will put a comment under the supervisor window; make sure to check it and answer. I know that you already know the cost of the train, but please attach the quote of our vendor to the request. I will then check it to approve or deny the request based on our usual expense limit.”
  • exercise 3:
    • Analyze the last interactions with your boss. Can you identify which leadership style he/she has used while interacting with you? Is always the same style being used? Is it efficient or would you prefer to be managed in a different manner?
    • In the same way, analyze your last one-on-one reviews with some of your team members as well as your last team meeting? Have you exclusively used your default management style as identified in exercise 1 or which other styles have you also used? What can you conclude? Is there anything you would do differently and why?

So What?

If obviously different management styles can be described based on the team leader’s inner nature to turn to people or to tasks and his tendency to be self-involved or to let part of the control to his staff, each profile reveals nevertheless clear advantages and drawbacks, especially when pushed to their extremes. Therefore, every manager should understand first the dominating management style they fall under by default and then learn how to adjust their behaviors based on the situation of the team and individual employee they interact with.

Answer to exercise 2: 1. delegative – 2. coercive – 3. democratic – 4. bureaucratic

Last Revision: 2015 March 24

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From dusk till dawn: why managers need a stress management survival kit.

“Mens sana in corpore sano”; often translated as “a sound mind in a sound body”

 Latin quotation derived from Satire X of the Roman poet Juvenal (late 1st and early 2nd century AD)

Abstract:

Stress has been called the “health epidemic of the 21st century” by the World Health Organization. But how can we define stress? What are the differences from one person to the other and what are the possible impacts and consequences? In a management position, responsibilities increase, so does stress; what are the main stress factors for the managers and their teams in our today’s society and how can they cope? This post aims at providing some answers to the above questions, using results of various psychology studies as well as direct observations and lessons learned from the field.

Download a one-page executive summary here (PDF or JPEG format): Handling Stress in the Workplace

DELTANOMIX LEADERSYNDROME - Handling Stress

Concept:

A simple, practical definition of stress

Among the many researches on stress, a usual reference is the work of Professor Lazarus in 1966 and beyond. In a nutshell, his study reveals that the stress generated by a given situation is simply equivalent to the evaluation of the situation by the individual himself. This evaluation, which is totally subjective, can be summarized by answering the two following questions:

  • Is this situation /event a problem or a threat?
  • Do I have enough resources to face it?

The higher the ratio between the answers to those two questions is, the more important the level of stress experienced by the individual is.

It has also been demonstrated that this double evaluation is influenced by three types of factors proper to each individual:

  1. psychological factors: certain personality types are more sensible to stress factors than others (for example, a person with an overall positive mindset may be less tempted to see a given situation as a problem)
  2. sociological factors: social conditions have been proven to be a factor influencing our reaction to stress (for instance, a single parent in charge of kids working part-time will very probably react differently to the same stress factors in her work environment compared to a just-graduated male colleague working full-time in the same company)
  3. biological factors: gender, age, health conditions (eg our evaluation of an event can be considerably affected by a lack of sleep)

For a practical illustration of this definition, go to the exercise 1 of  the “practice”  section of this post.

The impact and  consequence of stress in the workplace

Even if the stress can be seen as a stimulant boosting the individual performance in certain cases or can increase some of our cognitive capacities like memory when, among other conditions, it is timely synchronized with an emotionally charged event (Marian Joëls, 2006), all clinical surveys converge to say that, on the long-run, a lasting exposure to stress has damaging consequences on an employee. Those consequences can be classified in 4 categories (Poirot, 2004):

  1. psychological consequences: increased number of depressions, anxiety disorders and psychological distress cases
  2. behavioral consequences: increased aggressiveness, higher drug and alcohol consumption, higher tendency to social withdrawal, tendency to become disorganized and a decrease in decision-making, concentration and learning capacities
  3. physical consequences: increased back pain, higher risk of cardiovascular trouble, perturbation of the immune system and/or of the digestive system, tensed muscles, difficulties to sleep, appetite disorders, skin problems…
  4. organizational consequence in the workplace: lower commitment toward the company, decreased creativity in work activities, lower collaboration and solidarity toward co-workers, inferior vigilance when executing tasks, increase in the intention to leave the company and higher number of unexpected short-term leaves or sick leaves.

No need to comment further on the potential impacts to yourself and to your business when affected by one or several of the above consequences!

Stress factors in the workplace: how are the managers and their teams exposed?

Regardless of the work environment, it is to recognize that our modern society contributes to generate stress through the following factors (Lefebvre and Poirot, 2011):

  • disappearance of the large institutions that played a structuring role for the individual (like Church): everyone is free to invent its own life and has to invent its own life
  • obligation of performance pushed by the modern media (beauty, professional success…)
  • frequent mobility disrupting the family
  • time compression (real-time flow, zero-latency expectation…)
  • lower engagement toward sustainable long-term sharing relations (accelerated by the development of virtual reality and social media)

Derived from the above list (and in addition to it), it can be observed that managers and their teams often have to cope with the following stress factors within their companies:

  • a constant increase of the expectation in terms of business performance: “always do more with less”, which can translate in an exhausting over-investment of the manager, potentially leading to burn out (long hours and excessive overtime preventing to step back and appreciate new perspectives, frequent business trips and near-24/7 availability through smartphone leading to mental and physical fatigue, daily priority switching and impossibility to take vacations in order to reach objectives generating a decrease in terms of creativity and a loss of motivation…)
  • a management paradox: field managers are requested to manage better (by taking the necessary time to coach and grow their teams through relevant meetings and one-on-one sessions, conduct and document the annual -and intermediate- performance reviews, support talent management programs, follow performance improvement plan for weaker employees through regular checkpoints, define SMARTER objectives and ensure the feedback sessions…) while facing an increasing pressure in getting operational results being delivered at lower cost and in always shorter delays. In other words, managers are under a constant pressure to arbitrate between a short-term result and a long-term human investment, between growing their teams or doing themselves in order to answer faster changing priorities or new urgencies…
  • a pressure of being the reference: as a natural part of their role, managers are expected to represent the company values and model the related positive behaviors. Under constant scrutiny from their own boss, peers and teams, this can turn into an important stress factor for new managers who fear to fail or who lack self-confidence and who often only receive little support or guidance in their new role to help them becoming this expected reference.
  • a loneliness paradox: at the same time that, by definition, managers have to interact with many counterparts other than their direct teams (other teams and their leaders, other departments through transversal exercises, shared services…), they are often left on their own to learn how to do so in an efficient manner. Moreover, in certain companies, field managers can also feel a strong disconnect from an upper senior management that takes strategic decisions (new services offer, product decommission, organization revamp, integration activities following m&a…) but that provides almost no support for the operational execution of these decisions. It is then completely up to those first line managers to identify the best way to transform the new company missions into a tangible result… and to convince their teams!
  • an autonomy paradox: more and more, managers are required by their own managers to demonstrate real intrapreneurship abilities and are often expected to run autonomously the show while, at the same time, the control of their actions, performance and outcomes are getting tighter… (“You are autonomous but I control you”)

Obviously list is not exhaustive and many other stress factors generated by both our modern way of living and by the corporations we work for could for sure be added…

How to detect you are running off-limits? How to cope?

When suddenly placed under stressful conditions, our body will react to regulate the stress and come back to its natural balance following a principle called homeostasis. If we refer to our ancestors back to prehistorical times, when facing an immediate danger like a wild animal or other predators, the only way to react in order to reduce the stress was either to escape or to fight. In either cases, muscles needed to be ready by getting the necessary glucose and oxygen transported by the blood; this still explains for example why, when put under stress, one feels his heart accelerating, blood pressure increases, muscles get tensed… Although the stress factors have obviously changed through the ages (I tend to believe that there are no more wild animals in our modern cities or at our workplace; this is though arguable!), our reactions have inherited from those two ancient behaviors and stress specialists now classifies coping behaviors under the two following categories:

  1. the adaptive avoidance coping behavior: one faces stress by trying to reduce the emotions generated by a stressful situation. (In its extreme form, especially in case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder syndrome, this can lead to social withdrawn or denial as maladaptive coping technique)
  2. the constructive problem-solving behavior: one tries to eradicate stress factors to avoid facing stress

Unless the situation is totally uncontrollable (9.11 in the US, 3.11 for Japan…), stress specialists agree to say that constructive problem-solving techniques will give the best results because the individual acts directly to take control over the stress factors which logically brings a feeling of control, key to a good psychological balance.

In more practical terms, let’s have a look to some proven coping techniques. Those techniques can easily be distributed in one of the above two categories.

  • know yourself:
    • listen to your body and read the warning signals that it may be sending: have you recently experienced difficulties to sleep, started to smoke (again), put on weight, had compulsive needs for junk food or alcohol, experienced headaches or shoulder/back pain? Analyze the conditions under which those symptoms have occurred and identify whether these are linked to specific situations or stress factors,
    • work out your Emotional Intelligence (EI) muscle! The emotional intelligence is frequently defined as the ability to identify, understand, control and use the emotions of oneself or others. The psychologist Goleman (1998) classifies the emotional intelligence under 4 categories: the self-awareness (ability to identify and understand one’s own emotions), the self-management (ability to control and adjust one’s own emotions in an appropriate manner), the social awareness (ability to feel, understand and react to other’s emotions, to be empathic, to achieve social integration) and the relationship management (ability to inspire, influence, grow the others as well as the ability to create links, manage conflicts and foster collaboration). In your personal case, use your self-awareness to identify when and why you get angry, upset, aggressive, depressive, sad… Can you figure out what has triggered those negative emotions? How can you use those constructively or turn them positively?
    • once you know how to read the symptoms telling you that you get over-stressed, it becomes easier to prevent running off-limits and risk a burn-out. Common techniques to use when those symptoms occur include relaxation, meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, mental visualization of positive images or any other well-being methods that you find appropriate. Taking a regular guilt-free rest to explore new hobbies, to spend time with your friends and families, to play, to sleep and to do regular physical exercise is also a very efficient way of releasing stress.
    • socialize: under difficult, stressful conditions, it is key to avoid isolation and look for social support from friends, family, colleagues or even specialists if required.
  • know your limits:
    •  obviously, you can only know your limits once you’ve reached or exceeded those… The self-observation methods mentioned above will hopefully help you to know when you’ve reached the breaking point without going too far. You can also try to answer to questions about things you cannot do any more or that you do not want to do any more and why.
    • distance yourself from your success and failures and analyze them to avoid falling into hubris. Many companies have seen modern Icarus burnt by success… (In Greek mythology, Icarus attempts to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. He ignored instructions not to fly too close to the sun, and the melting wax caused him to fall into the sea where he drowned.  – source Wikipedia -)
    • once you know your limits, learn how to say “no”! When you know that you are requested to perform activities that will put you (and consequently your teams and organization) at risk, first learn to say “no” to yourself then learn to say “no” to the others, explaining the reason and always proposing alternative solutions. A good manager should always appreciate your honesty and ability to share about your own limits… Obviously, model the same behavior with your teams! Saying “no” and pointing your limits while proposing alternative solutions will also be a precious help for yourself and for your manager to identify the necessary resources and means to support your future growth.
  • manage the boss in your head:
    • in a performance-driven society, managers are requested to set their targets to reach excellence. If this is indeed an healthy direction for an organization (nobody can disapprove setting excellence as a target), this can translate though at a personal level, especially for junior managers, into setting one’s own internal expectations to a too high level.
    • therefore, it is important to regularly revisit your own beliefs and reset your internal expectations to the right level. Each time you tell to yourself “I have to…”, “I must…”, “I’m for sure expected to…”, take a few minutes to assess the reality and rational behind those internal thoughts. Learn how to manage the boss in your head that tells you to be perfect; nobody is perfect and a manager is neither a robot nor a super-hero!
    • Think positive: when put on a new assignment or a difficult task, take it as an opportunity to learn. Identify the risks and areas where you may need support; provide your best effort and once over run the lessons learned (be it a success or  a failure). Recognize and celebrate your own success to support your self-esteem. In case of failure, be fair about the causes and figure out what you could have done differently for next time.
  • plan and prepare:
    • recent psychology studies (eg studies from Psychology Professor Epstein) have revealed that planning and preparing your day, week, months… and anticipating the potential stress factors remains the most efficient means to fight stress.
    • plan your day (you can use modern time management tools to support this practice) blocking slots for your free-time and slots allowing you to step back, plan your holidays (holidays are to be considered as an healthy organization sustainability check exercise by managers: can the team run without their manager during 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, 1 quarter? The answer to this question will give you an indication of the maturity and sustainability level of your organization) and make long-term projects for your life! Planning will also help you to ensure that you keep a fair work-life balance.
    • spend time to prepare thoroughly any specific high-stress event (a difficult client meeting, a job interview, a public presentation); this will increase the level of control and self-confidence and will consequently reduce the level of stress and anxiety.
    • make sure to reduce distraction and attention catchers (mail, smartphone…) when focusing on important activities in order to make the best use of your time and to achieve higher quality outputs. As a simple recommendation, you should plan some attention-catcher-free times in your day to reduce the unhealthy real-time dependency over-consuming cognitive resources. Doing so is another exercise to confirm that your organization or team can run without you being available, an indicator of sustainability. If this is not the case, think of what you would need to put in place to decrease the dependency of your organization on yourself.

Any lessons learned from the field?

Looking up, down , left and right, the best managers I’ve known in terms of stress management are the ones who:

  • cope with their own stress factors, making sure that they keep enough resources to step back regularly in order to define the long-term action plan for their teams, taking time to share transparently the company vision and strategy despite business urgencies or other pressure from upper management,
  • use their EI social awareness to understand each of their team members and their potential stress factors in order to use them for better output; “Know when one staff is stretched and motivated for it” versus “know when one staff is stressed to his limit”. This includes the ability to filter the upper management pressure and pass only the necessary pressure to own staff,
  • spot the stress-generator toxic behaviors such as excessive focused criticism, discrimination, information retaining, physical or mental harassment, on-purpose staff isolation… towards and within their teams and act on them,
  • know when to be tough and when to reward outputs of their team members (be it through specific celebration, personal management recognition acts or financial compensation)
  • openly discuss about stress with their staffs, recognize that humans are humans after all, ie prone to errors, mistakes, fatigue… and not robots or super-heroes (including themselves), work on identifying stress factors at work with their teams and share around possible coping techniques,
  • engage with senior management and partner actively with the Human Resources teams to define and deploy strategies such as tele-commuting, flex work… that will help creating a positive work environment and reducing unnecessary stress.

Practice:

  • exercise 1 – Stress; a subjective perception: imagine that your morning train is running late… Consequently, you expect to be in the office 35 minutes late; this will make you 5 minutes late for your first meeting of the day. This meeting is a project review with one of your key customer.
    •  Case 1: You are a young successful engineer with PMI certificates who has been handling this type of projects for the past 3 years within the company. Your managers completely relies on you and so far you have always been able to deliver on your promises; you appreciate that you have been largely rewarded by your management for your past performances. Your success even brought some of famous recruiters to propose you some other opportunities at customers and competitors. The day prior to the meeting, you had a complete review with the full project team and had a specific briefing with your senior staff member backing you up on that project. You have checked and confirmed that all materials are accurate and ready to share. You also know that your back-up is already at the office.
  1. Is this situation a problem or a threat? Evaluate this question on a scale from 1 to 5; 1 being a situation not seen as a problem, 5 being a high-level threat
  2. Do I have enough resources to face it? Evaluate this question on a scale from 1 to 5; 1 being  a perceived completely uncontrolled situation, 5 being a case where your experience, the context will allow you to control the situation peacefully
    • Case 2: You are a single parent with  a kid. You have just moved from a Service Desk role to a Project Management role in this new company and are still in probation period. You are running your first project with this key customer. Your manager made it clear that the success of this project was one of the criterion to pass the probation period. You had to leave the company earlier on the day before the meeting because your kid went sick and therefore you could not run the project review with the project members. Unfortunately, you had to wake up at several occasions during the night to calm down your kid running high fever.
  1. Is this situation a problem or a threat? Evaluate this question on a scale from 1 to 5; 1 being a situation not seen as a problem, 5 being a high-level threat
  2. Do I have enough resources to face it? Evaluate this question on a scale from 1 to 5; 1 being  a perceived completely uncontrolled situation, 5 being a case where your experience, the context will allow you to control the situation peacefully
    • Conclusion: for both case 1 and case 2, divide the result of the answer to question 1 by the result of the answer to question 2. What is the ratio? Link the result to the stress definition presented at the beginning of this post, what can you conclude? Obviously those 2 cases are extreme, feel free to explore mixed situations based on the above parameters… Also run the same exercise for some of your personal cases
  • exercise 2 – know yourself: in a first step, answer the below self-assessment questions without prior thinking or specific reflexion. Then come back on each of the answers and analyze them. What can you learn about yourself?
    • In my work today, what gives me the most pleasure is …
    • In the past 12 months, the best and the worst periods of my work life have been …
    • What are the things that I do but that I don’t like in my job today?
    • What would trigger me changing my job?
    • What am I ready to sacrifice for my job? What am I ready not to sacrifice to my job?
    • In the past 12 months, I already had the feeling that I could no longer cope with my role and responsibilities; true or false?
    • I have the feeling of under-performing where in fact my manager is satisfied with my performance; true or false?
    • I have already said “no” when what I was requested to do was exceeding my physical/mental capacities; true or false?
    • In the past quarter, I have seen myself very aggressive with colleagues or family in several occasions; true or false?
    • I have had some unusual headaches and back pain in the past quarter; true or false?
    • recently I have increased my consumption of alcohol, cigarettes, junk food, drugs; true or false?
    • The things that upset me the most at work are …
    • I’m the least comfortable at work when …
  • exercise 3 – the manager as a reliable stress management advisor for their teams: The below questions aim at helping you identifying the type of support you provide to your teams in eradicating the unnecessary stress factors. Answer them. What can you conclude? Are there any actions that you could take to make the situation even better?
    • I know each one of my team members and what causes stress and anxiety for them; true or false?
    • I spend time to share regularly the company and teams missions, the progress and the lessons learned from the recent experiences with my teams; true or false?
    • All my direct reports have clear objectives that I reevaluate regularly with them; true or false?
    • I support my team members when they request for holidays and even encourage everybody in my team to take vacations on a regular basis?
    • I know when and how to challenge my team to get a greater outcome but I also know when to reduce the pressure?
    • I celebrate the success of the teams and support my teams in running lessons learned for both success and failures; true or false?
    • I know all the possible work facilities proposed by my company (flex time, tele-commuting, part-time…) and advertise them regularly to my teams?
    • I have a forum in place where my teams can exchange about their difficulties and find constructive ways to overcome them
    • I recognize when I have done a mistake in front of my teams?
    • I have frequent discussions with my team members in order to figure out what they like or not in my way of managing; true or false?
    • If I identify that the objectives provided by the upper management are too much of a stretch for my department, I raise the point and propose various approaches to answer the problem?

So What?

Looking around us, it is common sense to admit that an overdose of stress and pressure always end up in negative results for the person affected, be it at a physical level or at a mental one. Unfortunately, sources of stress have increased in our modern societies (pressure of the performance and perfection, real-time environment, loss of references…). If the sensibility to those stress factors varies from one individual to the other, there are nevertheless common practices to cope with it: a good work-life balance and a healthy life style associated to regular free-time spent on social activities with family, friends or colleagues usually helps to reduce the sensation and consequences of stress. Besides, being able to identify one’s own sensibility to various stress factors and recognizing one’s own limits through self-observation appears as a key exercise in order to take control over the sources of stress. This is even truer when one anticipates the stress and prepare for it; taking control over the source of stress and reducing them through proper planning and preparation remains the best way to avoid stress! As a manager, it is obviously your responsibility to be aware of your conditions and to make sure that you do not run off-limits, while, at the same time, you also have a role to play in educating and supporting your teams in coping with their negative stress factors as well.

Last Revision: 2015 March 28

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