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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Country Music and Radio’s Future – It’s Time to Get Busy! (Archives)

© 2001 Terrell M. McDaniel, Ph.D.
Gavin Magazine, May 25, 2001 – Archived

In the two previous issues of Gavin I’ve discussed the Product Adoption Curve and product life span as they relate to the current cycle of Country music/radio.

Hopefully, you’ve given some thought to Country radio’s current position in the product life cycle. Now comes the question of what you can do with that information.

For starters, Don’t buy into unproductive emotional reactions. Some number of your colleagues may not have experienced a full business cycle in country radio. They came in when things were booming and may not know what to do. You may see grief in its many forms, some of which are blaming, bickering, playing woulda-shoulda-coulda, and making demands for yesterday’s numbers (hey, as if you wouldn’t like them back yourself!) The current status of country radio calls for leadership, and the fact that you are interested in this article suggests that you want to be one of the leaders. Don’t fret; get to work.

· Transcend the finance mentality, if only for a moment. Your station is about numbers and advertising to the accounting department, but not to your listeners. It has a different meaning for them, based upon what it value provides for their lives. Consumers have a funny way of going wherever they must to find what they want – and many have already left country radio. Your job is to create enough excitement to get them back. Keeping accounting happy is only a secondary problem for you.]

· Make sure that you have an “environmental scanning” system for finding new ideas. Use the product adoption curve to identify the people you watch – or should watch – for new ideas and trends. These reference people will likely be in the group right before yours on the Product Adoption Curve (for example, if you are an Early Adopter, watch the Innovators.) Communicate with them regularly enough to get a feel for what they are doing.

· Challenge people in the record companies, corporate office, and consultants to pursue innovation with you. Encourage them to commit money and time to organizational mechanisms and product development processes that support innovation. In a multi-product corporate environment, the savvy operators know that different products are in different phases at different times. A little bit of wise investment will put Country back in the “cash cow” category in good time.

· Become a perpetual student. If you stop being willing to learn and experiment, you’ll be a follower. Read, listen, think, imagine, write. Put this on your calendar, as part of your job or career development efforts, not just something you do when you have time.

· Get yourself, and your bosses, ready for you to make some mistakes. Revolutions are messy.

· Become an artist. Learn how to do the creativity thing. Put some fun back into doing radio. A good starting place is Roger von Oech’s book, A Whack on the Side of the Head.

· Discover who the “innovation leaders” are at your station, group, etc., and create some of your own mechanisms for creativity, such as regular staff brainstorms, an imaginary radio station that specializes in breaking the rules, awards for not-ready-for-prime-time spots, promotions, record mixes, etc.

· And of course, the old tried-and-true ideas: designated day-parts and programs to appeal to the front of the Product Adoption Curve. (And research the results! You need data!) Pay attention to live venues and other formats for new trends. Hit the streets, and do some direct observation of what your audience is going for nowadays. Take regular trips to Nashville and elsewhere to hear what the Lunatic Fringe and Innovators are doing there. And most important, get a feel for who among your listeners are on the front end of the curve.

You may say – or hear your boss say – that you absolutely haven’t the time or resources for this stuff. Take heart: the Product Adoption Curve suggests that there have to be only a few innovators, and most of the rest can just keep an eye on the process. Still, you should do what you can, if nothing else, for your own sake. Because, history has shown that when absolutely everyone in an industry plays it safe, at some point there is no industry left

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Waiting for What’s Next: More out-of-the-box thinking from The Doc (Archives)

© 2001, Terrell M. McDaniel, Ph.D.
Gavin Magazine, May 11, 2001 – Archived

In the previous issue of Gavin, I applied the product adoption curve to the current “Is Country Music Boring?” debate. I hope that dose of industrial psychology made you not only see things a little differently, but also made you think, talk, imagine, plan….even scheme.

The product adoption curve is about people, not products, but the two follow a similar pattern. Products, including country music and country radio, have life cycles. At the beginning of the cycle, there are few profits as companies work to expose their products, build new channels of distribution, and create distinctive brands or, in country’s case, sounds. In the middle stages, as the product is adopted, the excitement grows. Everybody joins, competition heats up, the money rolls in, and you have a lot of knock-offs. (Remember the “hat” acts?)

But at the end, the product becomes a commodity, like salt or sugar. Price becomes a big issue. Consolidation occurs, and there is a shake out. Growth slows because the market has peaked. The Suits at corporate wants to cut costs. It seems to be all about efficiency, volume and money. Some folks can’t accept this, and expect for things to just go on like they did in the good old days. (“Why aren’t your numbers like they were in ’96?”) And, there is a lot of bickering, reminiscing and grief over the loss of something that was really great.

Take your own guess as to when the current product cycle for country radio started. My notion is that it started with the Class of 1990: Garth, Clint, etc. Now that era is over, and a new one has not begun. And if one does, it will likely reflect all of the changes that have occurred in the past few years: consolidation, corporate mentality, profit-centered business, and a new, more complicated relationship between radio and records.

One of the big challenges will be centralization. In the past, innovators and early adopters at local, mom-and-pop stations created the new product cycles. They broke a new record, tried a really strange new programming idea and took other risks. If the new idea caught fire, it spread across the format.

Nowadays, centralized decisions on programming and music, along with corporate accountability for Big Numbers, make innovating much harder. But if you don’t grow, you rot. This may give a new urgency to the questions posed in the previous article on product adoption. Exactly where are the innovators now? Are they free to innovate? Are there corporate mechanisms for innovation that can escape the pressures for Big Numbers Today? Has anybody with power and influence tackled this dilemma yet? Looking at your own situation, do you personally have any perspective or wisdom to share?

These questions are urgent because we are not sure when/if a new product cycle will begin for country radio. There are no guarantees. Several new media are setting up to challenge radio’s power. The old business model that made for such a good marriage between radio and records is under pressure. Country radio has “refreshed” the old product all that it can. The new era will be ushered in not by an extension of what country radio is now, but by a revolution.

The question is, who will lead it, and how? And, given the who-would-have-thought-it nature of revolutions, is there any reason why it can’t be you?

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Don’t Just Talk…Think About Boring Radio (Archives)

© 2001, Terrell M. McDaniel, Ph.D.
Gavin Magazine, April 27, 2001 – Archived

The recent fervor started by the published comments of some Nashville label execs about how boring country radio is – or isn’t – has provided lots of stimulating talk in the industry over the past couple of weeks.

As an industrial/organizational psychologist, I study these problems in businesses, and I’d like to present a few observations on where this debate springs from, and a model that might offer some solutions as well as some context for your water cooler discussions, and hopefully, management meetings.

The first concept this matter brings to mind is the Product Adoption Curve, a marketing model developed back in the 60s; a bell-shaped model divides consumers (and in this instance, Country radio listeners and industry insiders) into several groups:

· The Lunatic Fringe are those that jump on a new product very early, when no one else understands or cares.

· The Innovators adopt it a little later and help to refine it. They legitimize it and are the “opinion makers” that catch the attention of the Early Adopters.

· The Early Adopters than develop uses of the product and recommend it to the general public.

· Businesses make their best profits on the next group, the Early Majority, who weigh the price to the benefit of the product, and make it a big success at, say, Walmart.

· Their satisfaction persuades the Late Majority, who are low risk takers and price conscious consumers.

· Finally come the Laggards: you know, the bunch who are just now hearing about this Garth Brooks fellow, and are so enthused that they are upgrading their hi-fi to CD capability.

The record execs who have been in the news recently are the same ones who brought you some of the staple acts of country radio. They are also the bunch who provided some dogs, or some really great acts that you loved personally, but didn’t play, so the acts changed to another format or just faded away.

Chances are, these producer guys belong in the first group or two of the adoption curve, and it’s a good thing: somebody in their shoes is going to produce the Next Big Thing. If these guys were too satisfied right now, in light of what has been going on in country radio over the past couple of years, your future would look a lot dimmer. As it is, they are back in the A&R department doing demos on a kid with a synth-fiddle, a cowboy hat, a yodel-rap-fusion thing going, and a couple of very hip tattoos. You laugh? You must be a more conservative, Late Majority type.

And do these giants of the record industry get frustrated by trying to please you, the radio programmer? Heck, yes: they are artistic guys, not marketers. If you are looking for marketers, dial zero to go back to the switchboard and ask for promotions. Producers and record execs walk the line between “catering too much to radio” (finding records that will get played a lot but don’t expand the artistic envelope) and “getting too artsy” (please see “dogs,” “changed format” and “faded away” above). Their compromise is to “find an act (they can) believe in.” This usually means acts that feel artsy enough but are also likely to gain momentum as they ride the product adoption curve.

So, be pleased – even excited — that there are a bunch of bored and frustrated Music Row producers, driving around looking for acts that will someday excite your listeners, build momentum, make lots of bucks and numbers for your station, and then, ultimately, seem ho-hum and “long in the tooth” because, well, everybody’s sort of heard them.

But this whole line of talk ignores the real important person in this equation: you. Remember, the product adoption curve is about people , not products. There are a few important questions you can ask about the people involved in making a radio station exciting. These questions should not be asked only about music, but about every ingredient in your station’s sound and identity.

Which category do you fall in, personally? Which category fits your boss? Your GM? Your corporate execs? Who are the people or organizations that you, or your station, look to for new innovations? Where do these folks fall on the curve? Can you identify listener groups, day-part audiences, live venues, or other consumers that fall into the different groups? How about particular vendors, competitors, or sponsors? And how do you pay attention to each of the groups? How do you monitor their preferences and choice patterns? Does this model help you know how to prioritize the use of your resources? Do you have a process for bringing innovations along?

It is essential that you answer these questions for this reason: As a product matures, the corporate pressure is to focus on the people in the Early and Late Majority because that’s where the numbers and the easy money are, so it is easy to take your profits and focus on efficiency — corporate execs like that sort of stuff. The problem is that the people in the “early groups” define the excitement, direction and future of Country music and country radio. Those groups are where most of the creativity and liveliness is most appreciated and sought after.

As for your listenership, if your numbers dip, the country fans who were the first to go are the Lunatic Fringe and The Innovators – and they are taking the successive groups with them! To succeed, they’re the ones you have to get back!

In the meantime, think about this stuff! Discuss it! Study! Imagine! And don’t necessarily jump on the yodel-rap-fusion trend just yet

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