|How often do you see it? An IT project team starts out collaborating well, showing great thought leadership and proactive management, only to end up in firefighting mode three months later, constantly laying blame on others and treating contradictory points of view as direct assaults. Some team members gain weight, others resume smoking. People complain of difficulty sleeping and not spending enough time with their families.
Is it poor project management? Dig deeper and you’ll find the ugly side of too much stress.
More employees are in a constant state of primitive fight or flight response today than ever before. Corporate problems are more complex, cycles of information and change are faster, there are fewer managers yet more to be managed, and day-to-day pressures are greater. Factor in the popular view that stress is a badge of honor–the more pressure you face the more important you must be–and instead of experiencing the occasional stress that motivates, you end up with constant stress that kicks people into survival mode and negatively impacts their work.
Stress is the pressure our bodies and minds feel when responding to the demands and perceived threats around us. When we’re under stress, we use less of the front part of our brain responsible for advanced thinking, and more of the back part which handles primitive thought processes such as the fight or flight response. Any organization that can keep its employees relaxed, focused and using their full mental capacity is therefore going to operate more effectively–and ultimately be more competitive–than one whose employees are highly stressed and locked into a pattern of reacting, avoiding or competing with each other.
Take, for example, a busy IT executive who talks openly about the amount of stress he’s under. During an update meeting for a critical project, he’s constantly checking e-mails on his laptop, responding to messages on his handheld PDA, and continually referring to his calendar to see what’s scheduled later in the day. All the while, project members are presenting status reports to him. Instead of asking probing questions to ensure things are on track, he agrees with most of what is discussed and asks relatively simple questions.
Why isn’t he jumping on things that don’t seem right? Because his mind can only handle so much. He’s so busy multi-tasking as a coping mechanism that he isn’t using the full capacity of his brain. He misses things, he doesn’t ask the right questions, and instead of assigning priority to the requests coming at him, he gives the same level of attention to everything. In short, he’s locked into survival mode.
What it comes down to is recognizing distress signals. If you find your project team has locked into response mode and is constantly putting out fires or operating on a task-by-task level just to get through the day, chances are it’s time to replace distress with ‘de-stress.’
While you can’t necessarily change the external forces causing stress levels to rise, you can recognize the signs and take action at a grass-roots level to help employees find balance. Sometimes senior managers are under such great pressure that they depersonalize employees, viewing them as numbers, budget line items or roles. If you can see employees as unique people with individual needs, both inside and outside of work, you’ll be more likely to keep stress in check.