From stressed-out to nicely stressed

Stress leave costs the country tens of millions of dollars a year. There’s one good thing about stress, though: If you didn’t have any, you’d probably be dead. Stress is a natural and normal part of life and in fact, some stress is good for you — it’s motivating, makes you feel alive and gives you the drive to succeed.

But too much stress is debilitating. It drains your energy and undermines your body, your emotions and your ability to think clearly and quickly. The effects of too much stress over long periods can be toxic, acting like slow poison and building up, altering your body and your brain.

That’s why it’s important to recognise when you’re stressed and deal with it. When you don’t, it isn’t just you who suffers — it’s those around you, too.

Your first course of action when you recognise you’re stressed is to remove or reduce whatever it is that’s causing you stress in the first place. Of course, you can’t always do that; throttling your boss would land you in jail and you’d be even worse off.

So when you can’t remove or reduce whatever it is that’s stressing you, your next course of action is to learn to deal with it more effectively. There are two main ways you can do that:

  1. Change the way you look at and think about the source of your stress. It’s often how you view a situation or an even that makes it stressful. Your boss is always looking over your shoulder? See it as making sure you’re ok and trying to be available in case you need any help. Better? Ok, you may have to work at it, but a different frame of mind and sending yourself different messages about what’s stressing you can often be just what the doctor ordered.
  2. Don’t allow your stress levels to build up. Learn to recognise your own symptoms of stress and when they strike, do something. Stiff shoulders? Roll them around a few times. Shallow breathing? Take three deep breaths. Hands clenched in a fist? Shake them loose and relax them. Take a break. Do something constructive with your pent-up energy — take a walk, hit the gym, stroll in the park — whatever you need to do to clear your mind and calm jagged nerves. When you break the stress response early on, you have a good chance of preventing your stress from escalating and causing serious behavioural, emotional and health problems.

When all else fails, undertake some form of stress management, be it regular exercise, meditation, yoga or relaxation training. This is a longer-term solution that can prevent stress from making you ill and also improve your overall health and well-being.

The main thing is to get on top of stress as soon as you can. You don’t want to let it build up and become increasingly debilitating and difficult to deal with.

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Open plan offices – a pleasure or a pain?

From an organisation’s point of view, open plan offices have lower a carbon footprint than private offices and they’re cheap. They can be cheap and nasty or cheap and reasonably pleasant, depending on how much the organisation is willing to pay for the comfort and productivity of their employees.

What do you think about them? Are they are great way to help people communicate and innovate? Do they offer an atmosphere of excitement and energy?

Or are they just a low-cost and easy way to keep an eye on people and make sure they’re working? Do they reduce productivity because they’re noisy and filled with distractions? Are they unpleasant because they make people feel like battery hens? Do they damage working relationships because people get annoyed with each other’s glaringly obvious personal habits – untidy desks, slurping smelly lunches, speaking loudly on the ‘phone, humming tunelessly to themselves… (Clearly, good manners, common sense and emotional intelligence on the part of employees are a must in open workspaces.)

Open plan offices have been around for a long time and they can work well when people need to work collaboratively. They don’t work well when people need to concentrate and they don’t work well when they make people feel like they have no control over their working environment.

You can get around those two big minuses with good planning and flexibility. You can have readily available ‘quiet rooms’ where people can take work, meeting rooms when people need to get together to discuss issues and innovate solutions, and you can let people personalise their ‘space’. People can work from home when they need to concentrate or when they have a cold, (germs spread faster in open spaces). You can seat people with a low level of tolerance for noise and distractions in the quietest part of the office.

In Germany and Scandinavia, people generally have their own office with a door and a window they can open and shut. In the USA, the cubicle is favoured. But maybe private offices, cubicles and open plan offices will all eventually go the way of the dodo, as remote working, workplace hubs and new ways of designing offices, with free-flowing spaces, take hold. I’ve seen an office in Switzerland where employees can work at sofas, reclining chairs, cafe-style tables or outside in a lovely garden. Flexibility, informality and a feeling of coziness, friendliness and homeliness are shaping up to be the go for offices of the future.

In the meantime, what can you do to make your own workspace, and the workspace of your team, more conducive to productivity, cooperation, innovation and effective working relationships?

Four skills you need to make a difference

I’ve been updating the risk management chapter and there’s so much information, I can’t fit it all in! But this information is too good to not  put somewhere, so here it is!

Annette Mikes, Matthew Hall and Yuval Millo wrote an article called How experts gain influence in the July-August 2013 Harvard Business Review that I filed to use to update the risk management chapter. But as I said, alas, no room. The article explains how functional experts like health and safety managers, risk managers, sustainability managers, training managers and other functional specialists can gain the time and attention they need from senior managers. Based on their research they identified four competencies to build:

  1. Trailblazing: Don’t just sit there–go out and find ways to add value with your expertise. Talk to people across the organisation, at all levels, and find out what’s going on in your specialism and how you can help. Look for opportunities to make a difference to the organisation strategically or operationally.
  2. Toolmaking: Develop tools, dashboard indicators, report templates and so on to help you spread the word about the benefits of paying attention to your area and to show how the organisation is progressing in it. Make them attractive, easily understandable and easily scanned.
  3. Teamwork: When networking across the organisation to keep your specialist area front of mind, listen and learn–What are people interested in? What bothers them? What do they want and need from you? Incorporate their ideas into your activities and plans. Get their feedback on your tools and reports so you can make them more user-friendly and understandable.
  4. Translation: Help people understand the complexities of your specialism. Fancy words and statistics leave people cold. Translate them to everyday language. Tell stories to make your points clear.

When you’re passionate about your area of expertise, when you really believe the contribution it makes to building a better organisation, and when you have the energy and drive to blaze trails, make tools, work with others and translate your know-how into their words and worlds, you can make a difference. And that’s what it’s all about.

Get my what out?!!

It seems a supervisor at IBM in Australia thinks a good way to increase sales is for women sales reps to ‘get their boobies out’ and a good way to motivate female sales reps is to sexually harass and bully them. The details are far too tacky to go into here and make for pretty distasteful reading (but if you really want to read the dirt, check it out here and here). When the victim spoke to management about it, she claims she was told to get back to work and never mention the allegations again.

Where are corporate dignity policies when employees need them? Not to mention management support.

The victim successfully sued IBM for $1.1m. Her manager-with-the-bad-taste eventually left IBM and is now employed elsewhere as a sales manager.

Discussion questions

Can you state your organisation’s procedure and the steps to take should an employee make an allegation of harassment?

The ‘bad apple effect’

The importance of developing and maintaining a strong team culture that supports your organisation’s vision and values and strives for high productivity can’t be over-stressed. Part of that is your duty to turn around ‘bad apples’. When you can’t ‘freshen them up’ them, you want to remove them before they sour the rest of your team.

Let’s call this the ‘bad apple effect’: It’s a lot harder than you probably think to say ‘No’ to someone who eggs you on, even when you’re being prodded to do something you know isn’t right.

Have you heard of Stanley Milgram’s famous, actually infamous, experiment? (If not, check it out here; it’s chilling reading.) Doing what you’re told, as in the Milgram experiment, is sometimes referred to as the ‘white coat effect’ or the ‘authority effect’.

But it isn’t only authority figures we find it hard to say ‘No’ to. We don’t want to say ‘No’ to colleagues and friends, either; heck, it’s even hard to say ‘No’ to complete strangers!

A series of studies published in an article in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (9 Dec. 2013), concluded that instigators of undesirable behaviour have a huge influence on others and can easily persuade them into acting unethically, such as telling a lie, committing vandalism and taking office supplies home for personal use.

(Given that people are so easily influenced to commit undesirable acts, this research has implications for bullying as well as building productive teams.)

The effect of social pressure and the reluctance to say ‘No’ may even have contributed to the global financial crisis. In 2007 Moody’s gave a poor rating to a group of securities underwritten by Countrywide Financial, the largest mortgage lender in the US; Countrywide complained the assessment was too tough and Moody’s changed its rating the very next day, even though no new information had come to light. It seems the Moody’s representative felt pressured to acquiesce to Countrywide’s request to soften its rating, with the devastating consequences to the US housing market and the world’s economy that we’re all familiar with.

It’s far easier (about twice as easy, according to these experiments) than we think for one person to persuade another to engage in inappropriate behaviour. And it’s easier than we think for one person to change a team norm and value system for the worse. Social pressure is powerful, and ‘bad apples’ pose risks that you need to address.

Discussion questions

How do you deal with negative influencers in your team? Perhaps you have witnessed the ‘bad apple’ effect yourself.

Make your meetings positive

An interesting article in April’s Harvard Business Review (‘The New Science of Building Great Teams’ by Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland) reported research that examined the patterns of communication in teams (e.g. how much they gesture, interrupt, listen and talk; their tone of voice; whether they face one another when speaking, etc.). The researchers reckon they can predict a team’s success based on three elements:

  1. how team members contribute to the team as a whole (energy)
  2. how much team members communicate with one another (engagement)
  3. how the team communicates with other teams (exploration).

They concluded that the key to building a great team is not to select the smartest or most experienced people but to shape and guide the way they communicate with each other.

In her Workplace Communicator Blog posted 11/11/12, Marie-Claire Ross combined these successful ways of communicating with Dr Barbara Fredrickson’s research into positive psychology, reported in her book Positivity. Marie-Claire concludes that to improve safety meetings (or any meetings, or to help people work better together, for that matter) you need to make your meetings positive.

This means being positive in the messages you give (see my blog How Managers Communicate). Here are some tips to make your meetings positive:

  • Open on a positive note.
  • Keep the atmosphere upbeat and inclusive.
  • Keep ‘critics’ (negative team members) in check.
  • Get people in the habit of making suggestions rather than criticising and on focusing on the future rather than the past.
  • Make at least three positive comments for every negative comment. (Frederickson says the ratio in high performance teams is 6 positive comments to 1 negative comment, not 3 to 1, but if you’re team isn’t yet high performing, 3 to 1 seems a good place to start.).
  • Concentrate on what’s best for the organisation or team rather than on individuals. This means, for instance, not letting people with personal, or ‘hidden’, agendas introduce topics and working to build bridges between any functional silos that exist in the organisation. Another way to build the team and the organisation is by telling stories that illustrate a behaviour you want to continue; this might be reviewing and praising someone’s actions that demonstrated safe working or talking about how someone on your team or in another team put the corporate values into action.

Discussion questions

Do you think a team’s internal and external communications can predict how successful and productive the team is? Is it possible to predict a team’s performance just from observing team members’ body language and tone of voice?

What are the communications in your work team like? How many positive statements do you and your team members make for every negative statement? Why not keep a tally at your next meeting? Do your team members think about what’s best for the team or the organisation or only for themselves individually?

Smile like you mean it

Some people are paid, in part, to smile, like flight attendants and people in the customer service, entertainment and hospitality industries. It’s called emotional labour. But smiling when you don’t really feel like it is draining and can lead to job burnout.

When people fake their smiles a lot, they actually worsen their mood and their productivity falls, according to a new study. Conversely, when people smile because they’re thinking of an amusing incident, their next vacation, or a joke, their mood improves, and with it, their productivity.

Team leaders of people whose jobs expect them to smile should therefore coach their team members to cultivate positive thoughts by recalling pleasant memories or thinking about what they’re currently doing in a favourable way. That way, their smiles will be genuine and they’ll feel better about themselves and their jobs and consequently, do a better job.

Smiling helps in difficult situations. When people are stressed or nervous, their attention tends to narrow and they stop thinking clearly and noticing possible courses of action. That’s when a smile can help.

And if you’re still not convinced, smiling can help you solve thorny problems, too.  According to another study, a smile not only relaxes you, but helps you think holistically and flexibly as well. In that way, a smile can give you insight into a problem or situation and open you up to seeing your best course of action.

So for a happier, more productive workplace, smile at people. Chat about their holiday plans, their kids recitals and soccer games, their plans for the weekend. The happier people are, the better they’ll work.