The Stress Spike

By Terrell M. McDaniel, Ph.D.

Marianne Giles couldn’t believe her eyes. Marianne had worked for over 10 years in her multi-national manufacturing corporation, rising to the position of Assistant VP. She had been appointed to a select team for instituting a new Enterprise Resource Planning System (ERP), and was thrilled to be working for Stan Maddox, an admired mentor who headed the program. Then, almost 10 million dollars into the project, the word came out: information services (IS) had promised far more than they could deliver. The project would have to go into a holding pattern, and the scuttlebutt was, it would never come out. The rumors included something even more bizarre: Stan Maddox would be the one to take the hit for the failure, despite his having fought with IS all along to avoid the debacle. “He’s toast,” said one of the local pundits, “After all, it happened on his watch.”

Soon, things got worse. The tension around the ERP services center went through the roof. Then came the event that made Marianne feel as if she were in a dream: Stan Maddox blew up at an operations meeting, and put the hammer down on some of the operative personnel whose job it was to install the system. Here was the Leadership Guru, the Rock of Gibraltar, the Calm in the Storm, acting like a tantrum possessed 9 year old bully to his incredulous….and formerly admiring…..subordinates. Leaving the meeting, Marianne’s assistant whispered, “is it just me, or did Stan’s leadership just go to hell?”

Within two weeks, Marianne saw more tears, anger, criticism, and back-biting than she had seen in her career up to that point. By the end of the week, there was a growing atmosphere of long lunches, closed office doors, and an eerie absence of the humor and playful camaraderie that had been the hallmark of the ERP project. Her fear was that the program’s confidence and determination would be the next to go.

What Marianne was seeing was more than organizational stress….it was “stress on steroids,” an acute period of tension that might best be called a “stress spike.”

High levels of stress have come to be accepted as the status quo in American corporate life. (“Why do you think they call it work?”) Such has been the case for at least a decade, following the corporate downsizing of the early 1990s and the resulting boom and bust.

But sometimes the stress becomes acute – a “stress spike” – such as critical periods surrounding

· major deadlines,

· significant setbacks,

· transitions

· organizational/political struggles

It is important to know that a stress spike does not necessarily indicate an “organizational crisis.” The latter term reflects a substantive issue that is occurring within the organization. Acute stress is a psychological issue that may occur before, during, or after a crisis or, for that matter, no crisis may occur. Indeed, the acute stress period may occur as part of averting or avoiding crisis.

Here are some guidelines for managing through an acute stress period:

1. Character is key

During such a painful period in an organization’s life, emotional leadership is the key to turning things around. In Marianne’s case, she had to summon the courage to talk about the stress – and Stan’s reaction to it – with Stan himself, as well as other leaders within the team. This was a scary notion for Marianne, but she decided to approach Stan directly but supportively – and to do so immediately. She asked for a special appointment. Her opening line: “I am very concerned about something that happened recently, and I am very concerned about you. When I took this job, I promised to support you, and now I am going to keep that promise.”

Marianne framed her message to Stan carefully, beginning with her concerns about the effects of stress on him as a person, but finally discussing the impact of his poor behavior on team morale, his image as a leader, and the ongoing success of working through the ERP mess. She overcame his attempts to deny or minimize it by playful but direct humor: “I don’t buy it (the excuse), Stan. Ohmygod. First you lose your temper, now you lose your salesmanship!” and “Stan, if you start going off on the hired help, how do you expect the rest of us wienies on your team to hold up?”

Marianne convinced Stan to allow the team to seek outside counsel on how to withstand the stress spike, and to put that energy to good use.

2. Create a specific management plan for the Spike period.

Managing the stress should be a regular agenda item for meetings and task lists for the management team during the Stress Spike.

The presence of stress related behaviors should not be viewed negatively in themselves, as they are a natural outgrowth of the acute stress. Accountability should be placed on effective management and extinction of disruptive coping behaviors, and promotion of positive ones.

Topics of concern should include:

A. Counter-productive personal soothing behaviors (for example, avoidance, alcohol use, internet pornography)

B. Reduced productivity due to paralysis

C. Increased interpersonal conflict or tension between individuals or groups within the workgroup.

D. Decreased customer-service attitudes or focus

E. Increased expressions of anger or crying, including displacement of anger onto objects. (Stan had displaced his frustration with IS onto his operative staff.)

F. Increased aggression through, for example, hurtful or disruptive practical jokes

G. Increases in voiced frustration or discouragement

H. Increased violence potential

3. Go from the Top Down and from Inside Out

A. The first and primary focus of the executive team should be its own reactions to stress, as executive behaviors have an exponential effect on morale throughout the organization.

B. Executive team members should commit and be supportively accountable to each other and the top exec for their management of their own stress. The top exec should also commit to accountability to the rest of the team and perhaps another peer or superior.

C. The top executive of the team may be a primary focus of stress management. Like Stan, s/he may feel that his/her reputation is most at stake, and often this is a realistic perception. S/he may also be the primary portal through which group stress flows (“I catch flak from all directions.”) Therefore, special attention should be paid to the top executive and other “point persons” in the group.

D. Political behavior during this period should be explicitly prohibited and punished. A paranoid environment within the top team sends the stress into overdrive. (The general level of ambient politics will factor into the management team’s effectiveness in managing the acute stress period.)

E. Each member should delineate his/her key stressors and reactions, and make an explicit plan for managing them.

F. Each member, emanating from the top exec, should be open to feedback about inappropriate coping behaviors that are observed by other team members. Steps should be taken to correct observed behaviors.

G. Key norms regarding communication, particularly conflictual communications, should be reinforced. In particular, members should communicate often, increase their interpersonal support, catch conflicts early, “notch up” their levels of listening and negotiation, and acknowledge openly the effects of increased environmental stress in their communications with each other. Resentments and problems should be resolved productively, and as soon as possible. During this period, conflict between two members may often require the presence of a third, more disinterested, facilitating party.

H. The approaches for mitigating stress, listed below, should first be exhibited by the executive team for themselves, each other, and through their group process. Only then should they be exhibited and encouraged for subordinate groups.

I. When dealing with acute stress in one’s own down-line team, follow the same form as that suggested for the executive team: acknowledge and affirm the presence of the stress and its possible effects (“normalizing” rather than “pathologizing” the stress); explicitly discuss behaviors to avoid and promote; be accountable to each other; and review the issue regularly during the acute stress period.

4. Maintain morale/ manage stress

A. Show gratitude for positive behaviors regularly and explicitly. Calendarize time to take a few moments to reflect on awareness and send supportive feedback. Have a stock of mechanisms (e.g., note cards) ready at hand to use in a moment’s notice.

B. Increase your time in walking around the workspace to speak with people and talk the good talk. Although you will be asked to solve problems during this walk, and may do so, do not forget your primary goal of exhibiting appropriate attitudes in your management style. Your job during this walk is to mitigate the stress, not be infected by it.

C. Messages to others should focus on what they can control, and on positive-impact behaviors that you require of them to get the job done.

D. You will be asked to problem-solve more often during these times. Your response should be to assist in solving the problems, encourage independent problem-solving by instilling confidence and empowerment, providing focus, determination and courage, and reinforcing positive efforts.

E. Take note of the kinds of problems and worries that you observe or are presented to you, including attitudes about self, task, others, ability to be effective, and the ability to control events. These observations will be important after the critical stress period, as you seek to inoculate your culture against future stresses.

F. Your job in this regard is one of coach: encouraging, helping others to focus, maintaining teamwork and morale. Do not be shy about promoting a “rah-rah” or inspirational side to your style; just make sure that it is authentic, comes from the inside out, and provides your subordinates with “steak” as well as “sizzle.”

So, what happened to Marianne and the ERP team? Working together, the top group was able to “circle the wagons” emotionally. They used their prior hard work on team building to foster a “can-do, gotta do” mentality that pulled them out of the stress, freeing more organizational energy to direct at practical problems. As a result, the ERP installation slowed down but did not stop. Stan was able to use the team’s results to foster support from higher in the company, and to gain resources to solve some of the more intractable problems. As for Marianne, she felt good about the experience she gained in managing through a stress spike. Once Stan regained his equilibrium, she could once again be a student of the leadership magic upon which he had built his reputation. It was only later that Marianne realized that in finding her own source of strength during a stress spike, she had added some magic to her own reputation, as well.

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