Stress is becoming better known as a performance dampener for individuals. However, there is still little understanding about how all pervading the stress problem is in the workplace, its impact on organisational performance and what is really causing the stress in the first place.
The unwelcome fact is that stress is endemic in our organisational life. Wherever we see disengagement among employees, a high level of mistakes, chronic levels of customer service, low productivity, extensive waste, poor decision-making at management level and uninspiring leadership, you can be sure that stress is the underlying causal factor. Ultimately stressed behaviour and stressed thinking is the fundamental reason why so many organisations don’t work nearly as well as they could and why far too many of them fail.
What we need to take into account in management is that personal qualities such as enthusiasm, enterprise, exhilaration, curiosity, group loyalty, creative problem solving, teamwork, quiet focus and intuitive thinking are innate to everyone we employ. BUT, only when they are in their natural “brain state”.
These priceless human attributes comprise basic survival mechanisms that are inherent to all of us. But the crucial fact is that these superb qualities are generally only available to us when we are in a low state of stress. This means that the more stress there is in the working environment the less these invaluable qualities are available to benefit the organisation.
In essence, the potential and desire for highly creative and productive work is already inherent in almost every employee on your pay roll. As such all managers really have to do to dramatically improve productivity, is to release the organisational brakes that hold people back from actually contributing these innate qualities to the general purpose. Remove the stress and you establish a focussed, energetic and enterprising work culture.
In essence, we don’t need to motivate people, we just have to stop demotivating them.
Stress anywhere in a system will have an impact on the whole system
Stress is also important from a systems perspective. Organisations are living systems whose core components are the human beings within it.
But a system isn’t just a collection of fragmented events or independent components. These people’s relationships, daily transactions, individual aspirations and motives form the necessary drive, dynamic interaction and interconnectivity that make the system work. The system functions as a whole, with the component parts subtly interdependent on each other for its overall effectiveness.
A system’s complex and dynamic flow of constant interactivity means any new idea, action, reaction, change in function or change in structure that is introduced into one part of the system will have some sort of impact elsewhere in the system. Changes ripple through and across a system just like ripples in a pond. These ripples impact areas that may not otherwise be apparently connected.
Just like any other change factor mentioned above, if someone somewhere in the organisation experiences a stress response, then it will provoke a ripple affect across the whole system.
The stress response doesn’t just adversely influence an individual’s decision-making, ideas, feelings, behaviour and productive activity; through the medium of an organisation’s dynamic interactivity and interdependence, this influence then permeates the system as a whole and impacts overall performance.
This is why stress levels in any organisation can cause the whole system to under perform. Just like grit in the machine, if the stress is bad enough it can make the whole system seize up and fail altogether. It is this insight that provides us with a valuable clue as to how to improve organisational performance.
Identify and remove the stressors that impact individual thinking and performance, and you remove major constraints and obstacles to the performance of the system as a whole.
Why can we be so sure of this?
Brain research is transforming the potential for organisational performance
Amazingly, modern science has taught us more about the human brain in the last forty years than in all the previous three hundred years combined. Crucially from a business point of view, research into the brain (neuroscience and neurobiology), systems theory, and so on is rendering many traditional ideas about stress and psychology obsolete.
This new understanding is in turn forcing us to change many cherished beliefs about leadership, management control, organisational design, and motivation.
Excitingly, this knowledge provides us with a much clearer view as to why so many problems arise in organisations. This emerging view of the fundamental reasons why so many things currently go wrong is opening up an almost limitless potential for improvements to organisational performance.
Removing stress factors improves individual performance by 20% – 50%
This is important news for leaders and managers everywhere. Remove certain key stressors that habitually infest our organisations and you improve individual performance by a factor of 20% – 50% and potentially a lot more than that.
In effect, new knowledge about the impact of stress on the brain and the pervasive influence of an individual’s stress on the whole system gives us a plain choice. Depending on the type of leadership you adopt you can choose to stress your people into dull, conformist, compliance. Or you can choose to empower higher levels of enthusiasm, commitment, creativity and intelligent action.
Organisational stress creates an inhospitable working environment
Generally managers still greatly underestimate the real cost of stress. The received wisdom is that the costs are limited to absenteeism, sickness and the risk of compensation claims, although these factors are bad enough. But work done in hundreds of organisations with stress audits show that the real costs go way beyond this restricted view of things.
Most importantly, ignorance about stress drives us unwittingly to create structures, procedures, processes and controls that create an inhospitable working environment for ourselves, our employees and other stakeholders.
In the average organisation, stress constrains or undermines intelligent or productive activity at every level of an organisation and across every function. For instance:
• At strategic level stress contributes to poor judgement, incompetent or rash decision-making and unethical behaviour.
• At the management level stress drives rushed and inadequate operational planning, corrosive image management, defective analysis, flawed problem solving, faulty decision-making, weak relationship building and de-motivating leadership.
• At operational level stress provokes inauthentic working relationships, personal conflicts, accidents, costly mistakes and rework, flawed problem solving, lethargy, insensitivity to colleagues’ and customers’ needs, low creativity, waste, resistance to change and incoherent teamwork.
Organisational stress is of strategic importance
If, as a leader, you are contributing to making a stressful working environment, then you are wrecking the chances of your group being productive.
The profound implication of this is that the impact of organisational stress on performance has become of strategic importance. The understanding of stress is therefore an intrinsic part of any manager or leader’s tool kit. Stress management is no longer a peripheral matter best left to the HR department or some outsourced employee assistance programme (EAP).
A key skill-set for any leader from CEO down to supervisor level is to know the following:
• The impact of stress on their own decision-making
• The impact the stress response has on work behaviour
• What costs arise in the system when stress kicks in and how best to identify and measure these costs
• Why and how the individual stress response debilitates mental and emotional functioning at work.
• How an understanding of emotional needs avoids triggering a stress response
• The innate individual resources that, are available wherever individuals enjoy a low-stressed positive brain state.
The really good news is that you don’t have to be a super hero, star, or have charisma, driving ambition, or even a powerful personality to be an effective leader. Far from it, in reality these traits may actually get in the way of bringing out the full potential of your group as they can inhibit your ability to enable effective and spontaneous group collaboration.
Top down command and control triggers a stress response
Everything science now tells us about the human physiology, psychology, stress and communication shows that top down command and control management is very often counter productive. The reason is that top down command and control is always liable to trigger a debilitating stress response. On the other hand, enabling collaboration or teamwork is a more natural way to run an organisation, as it avoids triggering this stress response and so enables the optimum functioning of the human brain and emotional faculties.
The primary reasons that top down command and control induce stress are both the fear factor and the institutional disregard shown for other people’s emotional and psychological needs. Once the stress response is triggered it automatically diminishes many employees’ ability and even desire to function effectively in a whole variety of different ways.
On the other hand, a collaborative style of working helps people meet a range of their fundamental biological needs. Meeting these needs removes a number of different stress triggers and this enables the unleashing of the latent talents and creative power of everyone involved.
Top down command and control is not the only cause of stress of course. Leaders need to be aware of what else is lurking within the typical organisational environment that triggers the debilitating stress response and so damages their organisation’s performance.
Removing the grit from the machine
Utilise this knowledge and it is like removing the grit from the machine. You will revive a flagging work culture and unleash the true potential lying dormant within your organisation or work group. Your organisation will surge forward.
A more collaborative approach to leadership helps you:
• Liven up the enthusiasm and support of your work group
• Improve employee engagement
• Create a healthier, happier working environment
• Ignite spontaneous creative problem solving at every level of your operation
• Speed up the flow of useful information between departments and individuals
• Improve your planning outcomes
• Improve productive working generally
• Enhance your own and other people’s decision-making
• Radically improve customer focus
• Significantly lighten the load of stress on your own shoulders