Identifying Stress in Your Work Group
Sometimes stress builds up in the department and the manager is not aware. There might be rumors circulating about layoffs and plant closings, causing people to fear for their jobs and their security. Actual layoffs or closures, or bad news about the company's products or stock values, also cause people to become concerned (sometimes overly) about their futures with the company. Sometimes employees become resentful when they perceive that one employee is doing less work than the others. And sometimes personality conflicts are severe enough to cause stress for those involved as well as those who catch the fallout. Here are some signs that the people in your department might be feeling too much stress:
Rumors and excessive gossip
Groups of employees congregating at one employee's workstation, in the break room, or in the restroom — behavior often closely related to rumors and gossip
Discord and disharmony — people just not getting along with each other
A noticeable and unexplainable drop in productivity or efficiency
A general bad attitude — people badmouthing other employees, managers, upper-level executives, the company, or its products
When you see these signs, it's your responsibility as manager to get to the root of the problem. Talk to people and be a sounding board. Being able to talk about worries and fears is one of the most effective ways to put them in perspective, even when they are founded.
Things are seldom as bad as people imagine them to be, but the imagination's power knows no bounds. Problems won't disappear by themselves, no matter how desperately you wish they would or how hard you try to ignore them. Identifying or confronting the problem is often enough to act as a release for the stress it generates.
Clark was a very laid-back, easygoing guy. As a manager, he preferred to stay on the periphery, letting people and problems work themselves out. While this approach was fine for Clark, it didn't work well for most of the employees in his department. Several people were aggressive, domineering, and territorial. Clark's hands-off attitude gave them free rein and the impression that he approved of their behavior and tactics. Other employees were either less experienced or did not deal well with aggressive people. This created an imbalance of input. Mild-mannered employees with good ideas got squelched by their more belligerent colleagues, who bullied through their ideas and suggestions. There was much in-fighting and just plain bad feelings. It was a stressful environment to work in because either tempers flared or people just walked away and seethed.
Despite the impression Clark made of being calm and aloof, in truth the thought of becoming involved in any sort of confrontation or conflict sent him into stress overload. So rather than stepping in he stepped back, hoping that the reasons for the arguments and discord would go away as mysteriously as they had appeared. Of course, there was nothing mysterious about it. People had opposing views and didn't know how to express them without being adversarial. But these kinds of problems seldom fade away. In fact, the stress usually intensifies before it breaks, and the resulting explosion often leaves damage behind.
It's important for managers to get in the middle of things, to find out what's wrong, to talk with people about their concerns and fears. Put on your parent hat and have your coach hat ready — it's your job to set parameters and establish rules. Sure, some people are going to be unhappy. But they're unhappy now. At least when there are rules in place and it's clear that you intend to enforce them, you begin to re-establish a sense of fairness and equity.
One of the most common and significant stressors in the workplace is change. Change frightens and confuses many people. There is an inherent insecurity when the not-yet-familiar replaces the tried-and-true. It takes time for people to figure out their roles and places in the new scheme, even when they desire and embrace the change.
And yes, if you confront people some of them are likely to push back, just to see if they can and to test how far you'll bend before you snap. It really is a test, just as it's a test when your six-year-old decides bedtime is when he feels like hitting the sheets, not when you tell him goodnight. As a parent it's your duty to establish boundaries for your children that provide them with what they need, regardless of whether they know or agree that they have such needs. The same holds true in the workplace. You are the manager, and it's your duty to set the limits for behavior and performance.