When Managers Take Their Stress Out on Their Employees


When Managers Take Their Stress Out on Their Employees

By Sabina Nawaz, Harvard Business Review

Adam ran a $500 million business. The company was on a sharp upward trajectory, the biggest competitor was a distant second, and his board loved him.

But there was a problem. Even though his company was performing well, his employees’ productivity seemed sluggish. Designs required countless iterations, development was fraught with delays, and quality assurance found errors on the eve of major product releases.

What’s more, four senior executives had left the company in the past year. All publicly said their reasons were career opportunities they couldn’t pass up or family obligations. Adam was also on his third executive assistant in as many quarters.

Adam thought the problem was with his employees. He spent many hours reviewing his team’s work only to find their efforts subpar. No one seemed capable of envisioning the future or asking critical questions as well as he could. He wished people could read his mind so he wouldn’t have to continually re-explain the strategy and how to respond to changing market conditions.

Adam was stressed, frustrated, and perplexed. He seemed to be the only one finding problems and holding people accountable. He felt alone. Although he could see into the future of his business, he seemed blind to the immediate problems within his corporate walls.

I interviewed a number of Adam’s colleagues to try to understand what was going on. The biggest issue came as a surprise to Adam: the problem was him. People hated working for him. They described him as a jerk, a micromanager, and a bully. Even the senior executives that left the company indicated, when confiding with friends, that they were leaving because of the CEO.

Adam is not alone. His behaviors and lack of self-awareness are all too common in senior executives. I’ve worked with hundreds of CEOs and senior executives and interviewed almost a thousand people who work with them. These “360 interviews” provide my coaching clients with feedback from their direct reports, peers, and higher-ups — a full circle of the people who work with them. The most common refrain I hear is that the executives are “hard on people.”

There’s a high cost to treating people poorly, and it’s backed by neuroscience. A boss’s aggressive behavior triggers team members to feel threatened. The threat response causes employee brains to be flooded with stress chemicals and drains them of oxygen and glucose, flushing their ability to think. Due to their impaired brain chemistry, they struggle to remember things, be creative, solve problems, or take in new information.

No wonder Adam was frustrated that he seemed to be the only one capable of innovation and superior performance!

To understand what leads to bullying behaviors, we first need to understand the pressures that senior executives face every day. They must deliver value for impatient boards, demanding stockholders, and fickle marketplaces. Stakes are measured in billions of dollars. Pressure can bring out the worst in any of us. Think about the stress you were under the last time you raised your voice. In positions that place them under a microscope and high pressure, executives are also susceptible to having their brains hijacked into a fight-or-flight response. They try to regain a sense of control by exerting dominance over their employees.

If you’re in a high-pressure job where you’re not happy with the performance of those around you, consider if you might be part of the problem. Then start to turn things around by following these steps:

Listen with curiosity

For the first two weeks after I shared my interview data with him, Adam was gutted by the feedback he had received. He felt shocked and ashamed and wanted to quit. After realizing that these problems would follow him wherever he went, he decided to address them. The first step was to listen more deeply. He asked questions to uncover more details. He also asked one of his direct reports to give him feedback after each executive team meeting. As a result, Adam learned that the way he dug into details scared people. They thought they had failed or were on the verge of failing.

Start small

Overachievers like Adam often attempt to address all negative feedback at once. This approach is likely to achieve the same degree of success as running a marathon with little to no training. Instead, we agreed to start by tackling just four behaviors slowly. Adam took one action toward improving each behavior at least once a day, rather than trying to incorporate four new behaviors all at once, in every meeting. At the end of each day, Adam filled out a Yes List, a simple checklist to solidify his new habits.

Calibrate your responses

Adam’s comments and reactions were amplified because of his title. A mere furrow of his brow was likely to start rumors about the shelf life of an employee or product. To address this, Adam learned to provide perspective with his comments. He started using a scale to represent how he felt about something. For example, he would say, “On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being important, my opinions about the graphics on this site are a 3 in terms of a need for change. Don’t hold up the release for my comments.” With this newfound clarity, his team felt empowered to say no to some of his requests.

Set expectations

Be up front about what you need from your employees. There are times you need to ask your team to perform tasks they won’t find enjoyable. It helps to give them a sense of scope and an understanding of why the tasks are essential so they can better anticipate how much time to allocate for the work. This will also make them less likely to complain. For example, Adam was preparing to take his company public and had a long list of seemingly nitpicky details that needed to be cleaned up. Half of Adam’s executives had never taken a company public. By proactively sharing his list of hundreds of important (and often unpleasant) tasks with his team, Adam helped his employees understand what he needed and why. Setting clear expectations helped to prevent Adam from becoming frustrated and barking at his staff. In response, his employees avoided delays close to critical milestones. Even if they didn’t always like their to-do lists, Adam’s staff had a greater sense of predictability, and therefore, safety in their jobs.

Chunk it out

Adam was in the habit of using evenings and weekends to barrage his direct reports with emails, marathon feedback documents, and to-do lists. The result? Lack of action because people were overwhelmed and unsure about what to prioritize. After receiving feedback, Adam learned to break down one of his long emails into five shorter ones and only send out the first. People around him began to act faster, and Adam rarely had to send the subsequent emails because they figured things out on their own. Also, when Adam made multiple requests, he was careful to prioritize them.

Two years after the first set of interviews, I talked with Adam’s team once again. The consensus was much more positive. One direct report remarked that he had been dreading coming back to work with Adam and was thrilled to see him “1000% better.” Adam had transformed from the arrogant, disrespectful boss he remembered to someone who listened to his employees. He now trusts Adam and enjoys working with him.

By following the steps above, Adam improved his communication. His staff now better understands his priorities and meets his requests — in less time and with fewer mistakes. This has allowed Adam to craft an even better future for his company and his employees, unleashing a competitive advantage that is creating longevity with his direct reports and in the marketplace.

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