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How you deal with stress can ruin your employees’ jobs

A new study finds that a manager’s reactions to stress can be a key factor in their team’s performance.

How you deal with stress can ruin your employees’ jobs
[Photo: Saffu/Unsplash]

While a tight labor market has business leaders seeking to improve retention and engagement, they may be overlooking one critical factor: how their managers respond to stress.

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A new study by researchers of leadership training company VitalSmarts found that one in three managers can’t handle high-stakes situations. And their inability to communicate and manage through these situations is affecting team performance in a variety of ways. Managers who get angry or withdraw in when the pressure is on hurt team morale, and teams are more likely to miss deadlines, exceed their budgets, and fail to meet quality standards. And the individual impact is extreme, as well. The report found that teams led by “hot-headed managers” are:

  • 62% more likely to consider leaving their job than teams that are managed by someone who can stay in dialogue when stressed
  • 56% more likely to shut down and stop participating
  • 49% less likely to go above and beyond
  • 47% more likely to be frustrated and angry

It’s not surprising that a manager’s team is affected by poor management skills, says organizational psychologist Katy Caselli, founder of leadership training firm Building Giants. And good managers don’t just assume they perform well under stress—they check out the facts. Personality assessments, feedback from peers and mentors, and simple observation can all give you insight about whether you need to work on your stress management skills for the good of your team, Caselli says.

While most interactions with your team may not be especially meaningful, the conversations that happen when the pressure is on often have greater importance and impact, says David Maxfield, vice president of research at VitalSmarts and coauthor of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. When managers can stay open, curious, calm, and honest during trying situations, they have a positive impact on their teams. Improvements included meeting quality standards and acting in ways that are beneficial to the customer 56% more than those whose managers were less skilled. Plus they showed increased morale and met deadlines 47% more of the time, improved workplace safety 34% more, and worked within budget 25% more.

So, how can you get better at dealing with stress and create this type of positive impact? There are a few key actions.

Say something. If you see a problem or stressful time coming, speak up about it. By alerting those around you to red flags, you may be able to find solutions. At the very least, you’ll let the people around you know about an issue and that you’re working together to solve it.

Notice your patterns. Think about how you’ve reacted to previous stressful situations, Caselli says. Did you blow up or withdraw? Did you overreact or not move soon enough? When you can spot reactions that haven’t worked in the past, you can work on swapping them out for more effective responses, she says.

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Keep a fact-based perspective. In high-stress situations, it’s not uncommon to overemphasize the negative. “You’re telling yourself these implicit stories that are probably not true. So, once you’ve challenged your story and you’ve decided, Okay, I’m going to try to deal with this in a professional, caring way, then start with that. Explain the facts as you know them. Ask for others to share their perspective. Include time for listening, and for understanding their perspective. Then look for joint solutions,” Maxfield says.

Create a safe environment. If you’re launching into a tirade or withdrawing into a sullen mood, your employees may retreat or get defensive, Maxfield says. That’s not the best dynamic for remaining productive or finding solutions.

In 2018 research Google did about its teams, the company found that psychological safety—the ability to take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed—was a key factor in high-performing teams.

When you’re trying to solve a problem, share your positive intent first, Maxfield says. If your team feels safe and that you’re all working together to find answers, they’ll be more open to working with you to do so.

Focus on your own emotional intelligence. Being able to manage your emotions and interact with others during high-stakes, high-pressure situations may take practice and discipline, Caselli says. Learning about your own triggers and gaps in emotional intelligence and working on overcoming them can ultimately help your team perform better.

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About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books

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