The Big Picture

Re: Stress Management

Corporate Executive Tokyo, Japan

I worked in the hazardous waste management business for over 40 years in a variety of management positions.  It’s a highly regulated business, and the dangers of daily management of materials that are toxic, flammable, reactive or explosive are real.  The margin for error is low, and safety is the highest priority. So, stress on people is part of the equation every day. Mistakes mean people can be injured or die.  After 40 years of managing people in this environment, and witnessing them being managed by dozens of managers in dozens of other organizations, I have come to certain conclusions about how corporate culture can minimize their stress levels.

Every individual is responsible for managing his or her response to stress in the workplace in a healthful way.  That said, there is no question that organizational culture will influence stress levels of individuals. Like preventative medicine or preventative maintenance, the most cost efficient way to manage stress is on the front end, i.e. taking care to manage cultural influences that can create potentially unhealthy levels of stress in the first place.

An organizational culture where stress levels are healthy is fundamentally more productive than one where stress levels are unhealthy.  People that are overly stressed simply do not perform at peak efficiency. People that are afraid do not produce their best results, and unhealthy levels of stress produce fear.  Overly stressed and fearful individuals are prone to significant errors in judgment.

There is nothing “warm and fuzzy” about proper stress management in the workplace.  Organizations with healthy levels of stress simply are more productive, creative and reach their goals, consistently and predictably.  Their fired up, turned on work force is enthusiastic and energetic, all the time. Their behavior falls directly to the bottom line, in terms of maximum productivity, cost savings and optimal resource utilization.  Paying attention to stress management is not just a caring thing to do: it is a wise business decision

In no particular order, what follows is a punch list of the corporate culture attributes that I came to understand promoted healthy stress levels in people and increased their productivity, job satisfaction and dedication to the organization.

  • A high degree of trust exists in all directions: up, down and laterally.
  • Competent people with good character are hired in to begin with.  After a reasonable probationary period, it becomes unnecessary for people to waste energy constantly proving their worth year after year.  They are evaluated based on what they produce and results achieved.
  • High degrees of personal autonomy allow individuals to control their personal work environment to the maximum extent feasible to accomplish worthwhile objectives.
  • Collaboration is the internal mode of operation, not competition.
  • People listen to each other.  Listening is valued as much or more than talking.
  • Information is available and shared.  Very little information is privileged.
  • There is the minimum number of “command and control” work rules.
  • Mission, direction and priorities are crystal clear.  The company, the department and the individual are in synch as to what is to be achieved.
  • The mission is larger than self-interest.  Teams and individuals are emotionally tied to the mission.
  • Profit is not the mission.  Profit is the reward for accomplishing the mission, e.g. serving the customer well.
  • There is a high degree of respect for the individual and their contribution.
  • Deadlines are generally thought through well and are reasonable even when aggressive.  When deadlines are outrageous, everyone acknowledges that fact and pulls together to make it easier on everyone.
  • Resources are reasonably sufficient to accomplish the defined scope of work.
  • The defined scope of work is not hopelessly beyond what individuals can reasonably accomplish.
  • High ethical and professional standards of conduct are the norm.  When compared to the industry, it can be said that the organization meets or exceeds generally accepted standards of business conduct.
  • There is faith that the organization would not intend to hurt any employee, emotionally or economically.
  • There is confidence that the organization will succeed, and those contributing to that success will reasonably share in the rewards.
  • The organization recognizes and encourages an appropriate balance between career and home.  Work rules and policies are flexible so that employees can achieve professional and personal success.
  • Non-critical mistakes (especially first time) are viewed as opportunities to learn.
  • Organizational words and deeds are consistent and have integrity.  The organization walks its talk. It walks more than it talks.
  • Systems are designed and function to encourage employees to learn and grow in their career capabilities.
  • Performance feedback is regular and constructive, intended to continuously improve performance.
  • There is a healthy balance between business analysis and synthesis.  The organization values the whole brain: analytical and intuitive.
  • Bureaucratic systems are designed to facilitate productivity.  It is easy to “get things through the system.”
  • Decision-making is generally accepted to be timely.
  • There is faith that senior management has a good understanding of external and internal environmental conditions and makes wise business decisions based on this clear understanding.
  • During tough economic times, it is assumed that the pain will be felt evenly across the organization.
  • Senior management compensation and perquisites are assumed to be reasonable in relation to responsibilities and contributions.
  • Employee benefits and compensation programs are thought to be competitive in the region and the industry.
  • Celebrations of accomplishments and success are genuine.  Parties, games, slogans and posters are not used to “encourage morale”; rather they are a legitimate response to worthy milestones achieved about which everyone is justifiably proud.
  • People are treated like the adults that they are.
  • Creative ideas and suggestions are encouraged and a forum and mechanism for their incubation and implementation exists.
  • Dissent, contrary views and diversity is accepted and encouraged.  People can speak their minds without fear of retribution.
  • Management is visible, accessible, courteous and responsive to staff and line personnel.
  • Individual responsibility and accountability is clearly understood and in balance.
  • People generally assume potential positive outcomes from data, as opposed to making negative assumptions about the future, especially in predicting behavior.
  • There is a cultural bias to opportunity seeking and getting better at core competencies.
  • Likewise, there is a low cultural tolerance for non-productive behaviors:  cynicism, whining, complaining and chronic negativity, none of which constitute constructive criticism, which is encouraged.

There you have it. I have found through four decades of experience and observation that working on any number of these cultural attributes will help to reduce individual stress levels in an organization and improve productivity and performance, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

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Arthur Hargate
Arthur Hargate worked in the environmental services industry for 40 years, the last ten as a CEO. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio. Connect with Arthur on LinkedIn. Arthur is a regular contributor to the CEOWORLD magazine.
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