How Your Boss’s Stress Level Kills Your Best Ideas

Stress is contagious. If your boss or co-workers are always in a frenzy, how will you ever come up with creative ideas?

How Your Boss’s Stress Level Kills Your Best Ideas
[Image: Flickr user Daniel Dionne]

“If I were a household appliance, which one would I be?” That’s the odd question that personal branding consultant William Arruda asks his clients to ask others when they gather feedback from colleagues.


As he tells the Wall Street Journal, employees get shocked when they’re compared to “a blender whirring around at 9 million miles an hour” by their colleagues.

What’s wrong with buzzing like a blender?

“The productivity of entire teams can go down,” Mr. Arruda says of professionals who are running around with their hair on fire. “If you have one person rushing into meetings at the last minute and tapping a pencil through the entire session, it changes the cadence for the entire group.”

A body of research is growing around the way our colleagues affect our work, as in: our seats change our productivity; we become like the people we cluster with; we do our boldest thinking when we’re with mammals; and ideas don’t stay in people’s heads, they spread like the flu.

Stress, the Journal reports, is equally contagious.

People have become blurred lines

Consider this telling detail: In recent years when architects draw up a plan for a new office, they insert the human figures as blurred lines, zooming across the imaginary offices space. Why? Because as one architectural designer told the Journal, clients “can connect with it on an emotional level.”


The blurred figure is the rusher: the colleague that’s walking fast, finishing other people’s sentences, racing from meeting to meeting, checking their email, and otherwise acting as brief and brisk as possible. They radiate hyperactivity out toward everybody else.

Some say the contagiousness is due to the stressors of the open office: like some prison from the future, everybody can see everybody all the time.

“No one wants to be seen as the slowest moving object in the solar system,” says behavioral researcher Ben Jacobsen. “You have to keep up with the Joneses–literally.”

One of the reasons that we have a such a tough time dealing with bosses is in the power asymmetries inherent to the manager-managee relationship. And whether or not we declare our organization to be flat, leaders’ dispositions set the ambiance of the office.

In this way, a hurried manager will make for a hurried office.

Why you Need to Slow Down to Have Big Ideas

As neurophysiologist Stephen Porges has explained, humans can only handle so much volatility.


Our reptilian brains are constantly looking out for danger. If we read things in our environment that seem dangerous, like a hardstompin’ manager, then we’ll eschew our more mammalian qualities, like connecting with people or thinking about the future. In other words, if people are going to have dangerous ideas, they need to have safe spaces. And sprinting around the office creates the opposite effect.

Hat tip: the Wall Street Journal


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.