Boss, are You the Cause of Stress?

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Cliff was a hulking bear of a man who was a senior executive in my first and only corporate employer. He was known for loud, abusive rages that would leave him trembling with anger with a red face and a vein standing out on the side of his neck.

Once, when he was reaching the end of one of his tirades, another executive in the room said, “Jeez, Cliff, give it a rest. You’ll give yourself a heart attack.”

Cliff whirled around and assumed a balanced stance, like the boxer he had once been. “I don’t get heart attacks,” he growled. “I give ‘em.”

Most of the discussions I’ve experienced about stress at work treat stress as an individual issue. The suggestions all involve personal action. “You should take a break.” “Get some rest.” “Maybe start an exercise program.” “Do some mindfulness meditation.”

We don’t ever talk about the bosses. But this blog is for “bosses at all levels.” If you’re a boss, I know you’ve got stress, but you could be the cause of other people’s stress, and that’s not good.

Ponder this. You’re measured on the performance of your team, and the more stressed they are, the less likely they are to be productive. Yep, that’s right. You cause them stress, and they cause your performance evaluation to nosedive. It’s not malicious, or even conscious. When they’re stressed they can do good work and you’re one of the people who suffer.

Here are half a dozen ways that I’ve seen bosses create toxic stress on their teams. Watch out for anything that sounds like you.

You Create Stress When You Act Like A Monarch, A Pope, Or A Dictator

Whatever your job is, you don’t govern with absolute power or by divine right. Your job is to help a team of knowledge workers and the individual members of that team members succeed.

One of the dicta of my worst boss ever was that I should obey his commands, “like you would the word of God.” What that meant in practice was that I and other people who worked for him would listen to him make the most outrageous statements and not say a word. We’d listen to him suggest courses of action we were sure were going to fail, but we never let him know.

Act like a dictator, and your team members will avoid you as much as possible and ignore you when they can. The best you’ll get is compliance, not commitment.

You Create Stress When You Set Unreachable Goals

If you want the people on your team to be successful and you want the team to be successful, set targets that you can reach. That creates energy and a culture of winning. Unreachable targets create frustration, and a sense of victimhood. They create a culture of falling short. Set performance targets high enough often enough and people will stop trying altogether.

You Create Stress When You Supervise at Harassment Levels

Everybody hates micromanagement, but micromanagement is a small, weak version of harassment-level supervision. If you’re a boss that checks on everything, and I mean everything, and you check on the same things over and over and over again, you’re creating stress constantly. Let people who are qualified and committed do their work. You and the team will be the better for it.

You Create Stress When You Deliver Abusive Critique

People are going to mess things up. That’s what we do. It’s part of being a fallible human. You can use those mistakes and shortcomings as the basis for some serious coaching. That will improve a team member and the performance of the team.

Or, you can rant and rave and yell and scream. That may make you feel better, but it won’t improve performance any. In fact, team members will probably simply quit trying anything that might result in a mistake and a torrent of your abuse. When that happens, growth stops, and people quit getting better. The performance curve goes flat and then turns down.

You Create Stress When You Kill Messengers

There will be bad news. That’s how the world is. If you want to deal with whatever is causing the bad news, you must know about it. But if you routinely punish or banish the people who tell you uncomfortable truth, no one will sign up for the job because it’s a suicide mission.

You need to know uncomfortable truths, so you and your team can deal with them. Great bosses reward their truth-tellers. Bad bosses punish them. Which boss are you?

You Create Stress When You Don’t Let People Rest and Recover

People can’t work all the time. We need time for rest and recovery, for something different. If you expect people to be on-call all the time, you’re creating stress. Let your people be off when they’re off, whether it’s at the end of the day or for vacation. Set up a way to contact them in an emergency if you need to, but don’t expect them to be at your beck and call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

In today’s world, you may have to tell people that they don’t have to respond to your 3 AM email before the office opens. When you do, they may not believe you and you may have to communicate by more dramatic means.

Bottom Line

We know that great bosses are the most potent influence on productivity, engagement, and morale. What we don’t say often enough is that the same power you have for good is also the power to make every team member’s work life a living hell. If you’re doing any one of the things that create big stress, stop it. Now.

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