While the popular press talks of stress as a negative to be avoided, seasoned managers know better. If you’re trying to drum up new business, get a customer’s order out on time, or hit your numbers for the quarter, a little stress goes a long way. It’s even more important when you’re trying to transform your business or revitalize a sagging culture. That’s when you need enough stress to motivate action.
In its most positive form, stress results when an employee tries to do the same old things in a new environment. Those out-of-date behaviors produce subpar results and the growing gap in performance creates tension. It’s exactly the kind of stress you want, because it counteracts the powerful inertia of habit.
If you’ve been around the management block a time or two, you’ve probably also seen the other side of stress. As stress gets too high, instead of increasing momentum, it can counter-intuitively start to decrease it. You can immobilize people with too much stress: You stifle the creativity required to come up with new ideas, trigger fear of taking a wrong step in a high-stakes situation, or unleash frenetic but ineffective activity.
Somewhere in between these two extremes is the ideal level of stress; one that creates positive pressure in the direction of change without causing debilitating worry. This magic zone is what John Kotter referred to as the “Productive Range of Distress.” This is an extremely useful concept for managers who are leading through change, but how do you take it from being conceptual to being real? How can you alter the levels of stress on your team? How do you know when you should intervene?
Your first step is to assess the current state. There are signs that the stress levels on your team aren’t sufficient to create meaningful change. Watch for people who are too comfortable with the status quo — either resisting the need to change, referring incessantly to the “way we used to do it,” or generally not applying themselves to get the job done (i.e., coming in late, taking long breaks, and Yabba Dabba Do-ing like Fred Flintstone at the end-of-day whistle).
The bigger challenge is to identify the people who are burdened by too much stress. It’s tricky because some people will have an obvious, frenetic, or panicked stress response, whereas others will withdraw and direct their stress inward. Because there is no single pattern, you’re looking for deviations from an employee’s normal behavior. Is someone working considerably longer hours, failing to take breaks or to get lunch, behaving irritably with coworkers? On the other end of the spectrum, is someone becoming disturbingly quiet? Are they interacting with you noticeably less frequently? Is their body language demonstrating fatigue or cause for concern? Those changes might suggest too much stress.
Once you have a sense of the stress levels on your team, you’ll know whether you need to dial the heat up, or bring it back down from a boil to a simmer. There are several techniques you can use for each scenario.
If you believe there is too little stress on your team and that it will take a little more discomfort before your employees are in the productive range of distress, you have a variety of options to choose from. To make the suggestions concrete, I’m going to use the example of the introduction of a new sales culture. This is a common transformation and one that will stall with too little heat and blow up with too much.
Increase the frequency and pointedness of coaching. It’s easy to stick to the status quo when no one is watching. The moment that an employee knows that you’re noticing her behavior, the stress levels will naturally rise. The secret to coaching toward an optimal level of stress is to increase the frequency of the feedback you provide, but decrease the intensity. Imagine you have rolled out new sales management software but you’re struggling to get all of the salespeople to input their activity.