Saturday, November 24, 2007

Occupational Stress 8: Your mind, your body and job stress.

Occupational Stress 8 Your mind, your body and job stress.

A few years ago I was asked to give a lecture at Princeton University. The students wanted to know what stressors to expect from their initial experiences in the working world and how these stressors would affect them. Although this was an academic presentation, I was surprised to see that their questions and concerns were similar to the ones I see at all level of the business world and from all degrees of experience.

How is stress going to affect me? This is an easy question but a difficult one to address because the effects of stress are idiosyncratic. That is, it affects everyone differently. Stress is modulated by our temperament, body, and our genetic predisposition to its effects. Thus, we all react to the same stressors in physically and mentally different ways. Stressor is the technical word denoting something from the environment (work) that causes a stress response. You can see the individual differences with this little quiz. Which would you rather do with your colleagues, go skydiving or to the opera? Either one would be stressful to some and not to others. So, we can’t say opera is categorically stressful any more than we can say that office politics or meetings are categorically stressful. Yet, both politics and meetings are stressful to some people most of the time and to others some of the time. Adding yet another layer of complexity to the issue is that it’s primarily the perception of a stressor that gets the body’s stress response working. For example, you might think an evening at the opera will be stressful. Indeed, you may be upset and irritable the week before. However, when the big night arrives, you might find yourself actually enjoying yourself. In other words, the perception was stressful but the actual situation was not. Let's be honest here, how many of us have stressed out all week before an important meeting or other event only to have it be a positive, uplifting, and even affirming career experience? Show of hands, please. So, as we know from our political candidates as well as from a variety of other sources, reality and the perception of reality can be two completely different animals. Is it just me, or does this principle become magnified at the workplace?

The way you perceive possible stressors such as job demands, physical demands, power conflicts, and time constraints will determine your amount of stress. Again, the above items are objective, but each of us feels them subjectively. I was always amazed by my good friend and associate Chuck. No matter how many task demands we had, he was able to figure out how to do more and have it be a fun and challenging experience. When life gave Chuck lemons, he made lemonade. The way people like Chuck avoid job stress is to find some personal meaning in what they are required to do. He perceived the tasks as a challenge, a way to use his creativity, time management skills, and people skills to achieve his professional goals-goals he chose to set for himself. He was almost having fun overachieving in everything he did while I got stressed. Why? Because I did not find personal meaning in the job task. I viewed most tasks as merely an imposition from the outside. Chuck had it right. Whether he knew it or not at the time, these work tasks (challenges) allowed him to find personal meaning in work. He expanded and honed his talents and skills which he went on to use all his very successful working life.

Here’s what all this means to you. We all have leadership skills, advanced training, analytic training, talents, organizational skills, sales skills, etc. Psychologists do have techniques, tests, and instruments to qualify and quantify these attributes (techniques, tests and instruments that we are very proud of, I might add), but in most cases, we only have a fair inkling of our own talents and skills. Recognize your strengths and skills, then shape and organize the job demand to fit that skill as much as possible. Remember what Mad Eye Moody told Harry Potter during the big wizard completion: “Play to your strength”. Therefore, it is you giving meaning to the job, not the job defining a meaning for you-big difference. The stress research is quite clear here. Those who emphasize even a little control over their situation have less stress. This basic rule of physiology applies to mice, monkeys, and people. Discovering personal meaning is equal to gaining control. It’s a different way of thinking (or as psychologists like to say, a cognitive schemata reframing) and one you can control. Harry went on the slay the dragon and so can you.

Just remember the old saying, “ You work the job or the job will work you”.


Labels: , ,

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Change Management 7: Three Techniques to Improve Communication, Empathy and Setting an Example.

Change Management 7

Three Techniques to Improve Communication, Empathy and Setting an Example.

Last year I was teaching my Organizational Dynamics class. It was a large class of adults with years of business experience. While discussing the verisimilitude of change management, the class listed thirty factors for effective change management. We took these thirty factors and did a lazy man’s Factor Analysis. A Factor Analysis is a statistical technique used to whittle many factors into a few core factors. It’s also so complex that it has unhinged even the most steadfast of researchers. We derived three core factors consisting of Communication, Empathy, and Self as Example. Not surprisingly, these are the same core factors the research literature described as being the most important.

Let's look at each factor and some specific techniques. First, communication sounds easy, but companies and even departments differ in important ways. It’s no fun when only half the people show up for your meeting-that’s a communication issue.

Let's say that you need to schedule a meeting for everyone regarding an important legal change that affects your business. What’s the most effective means of communication-email, phone, pager, text message, memo, or personal visit? Rank these communication channels from highest to lowest. If you can’t do this quickly, maybe you need to give this a bit more thought. In the various settings where I work, the effectiveness of these communication channels differs not only from department to department but from individual to individual.

Try this technique. The next time you walk down the hall, with each person you see, mentally say their best communication channel: Mr. email, Ms. phone call, Dr. personal chat. You’ll discover that it's not as easy as you think.

Let's look at increasing empathy. Empathy is a complex concept that psychologists have spent a lot of time measuring and analyzing. It essentially means feeling what someone else is feeling, or at least understanding intellectually what they are feeling. Again, this sounds simple. It is rather simple but not easy. I probably don’t have to tell you how many times we are all astounded by someone’s insensitivity, not just toward us personally, perhaps, but toward us as employees or members of a particular department.
I know you don’t want to be like that, so here’s an excellent technique for developing empathy.

Pick out one or two people who are going through some organizational change. Now pretend you are in their shoes and answer the following questions.
1. Which professional skills will be changed? In other words, what am I losing professionally? For example, will I be doing less analysis and more client contact or visa-versa? How will I feel about that?
2. What contacts or personal support will I be losing and how do I feel about that?
3. In what way will I be more or less autonomous? This questions addresses responsibility gain or loss.

Changes in skills, associations, and responsibilities are the three domains that are most concerning for people during organizational change

Finally, how do you demonstrate your self-involvement in the change process? It’s tremendously helpful for those undergoing change to see those up the hierarchy addressing (and sometimes struggling with) these same challenges. It’s as simple as that.

A good technique is to list 3 ways that people will be able to see that you are actively involved in the change process. With each of these three, using your new empathy skills, list how they might perceive you as you set a positive example.

These techniques work and they’ll work for you. Try it, you’ll like it.


Labels: , ,

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Conflict Resolution 6: The Type-A Solution


Measure twice, cut once. -Old saying-

Two well-respected authors in the field of conflict resolution, Susan Carpenter and W.J.D. Kennedy, have eloquently codified the types of mistakes people make in large-scale public disputes. A mistake I often see is what they refer to as the Quick Fix, and in business settings, what I call the Type-A Solution. The Type-A Solution has been employed in a range of venues from small, two-person conflicts to larger departmental and multi-faceted disputes. It goes something like this:

Phase I: A conflict comes to the attention of management. The manager (or the management team), taking insufficient time to understand the issues at hand and the positions of those involved, declares a solution, unconcerned with the ramifications. Perhaps this is done out of frustration with the problem or with having to make a decision under time constraints. It also could be done out of anger. (“If I have to stop this car and turn around, you’re both in big trouble!”)

To be honest, I have to admit that making a "quick fix" can be tempting. Certain personality types are particularly prone to this mistake (we don’t need a show of hands, but I think you might know who you are). The consequence of a Type-A solution is that the disputing parties feel invalidated, unheard, and misunderstood by management; thus, a climate of us vs. them is created. The problem continues to smolder underground and then flares up with a vengeance. However, the disputing parties then have something they can agree on. They usually will agree that you and your solution are a major part of the problem, if not the entire problem. So, lets do a status review: First, you had a problem. Second, your Type-A solution allowed the problem to escalate unabated. Finally, and worst of all, you end up on the playing field as a participant, not as an advisor.

Phase II: As Carpenter and Kennedy explain, after implementing such a solution, you could find yourself in the unsavory and disadvantageous position of having to “sell” it to distrusting and maybe even hostile stakeholders. You'll also have to defend it against the usual crowd of spectators not to mention that you'll appear vulnerable to those who could benefit from your current weakened state. In one fell swoop, your status as a respected and impartial arbitrator will plummet to that of an untrustworthy outsider who is attempting to enforce a unilateral (and possibly half-baked) plan of action. To make matters worse, your motives will also come under suspicion. Oh brother, talk about a reversal of fortune. Unfortunately, what I then see happen quite often is a knee-jerk reaction and another hastily hatched Type-A Solution. Now, I think even the sleepiest students way in the back of the auditorium can see this train leaving the station.

Pop quiz: Can you think of a current international conflict in which we’re seeing the Quick Fix in one form or another? Discuss amongst yourselves. What are your options following such a situation? There is always the time-honored choice of walking away, stating that you provided a solution; how could it possibly be your fault if it’s not working? Second, you could continue selling the plan (or its sequel, the new and improved Plan II). Finally, you could take a deep breath and identify the primary, secondary, and, if needed, tertiary stakeholders, and begin to engage them in discussion and negotiation. Allow them, without your influence, to negotiate a solution that they agree to. My experience is that agreement and consensus will occur over time. If you go about fixing the situation in this way, you will have maintained your neutral and/or advisory position.

- Ian -

Labels: , , ,