Workplace Stress and the Achievement Drive
As I go into more and more workplaces I am struck by the tired and stressed looks on the faces of workers in many organisations. Statistics are now starting to show how the average working day is filled with anxiety and stress for many employees. Many people do not start their day well as they struggle to get deep refreshing sleep and some also compromise their nutritional intake at breakfast time. Both of these lifestyle factors set up a person to have less resiliency to whatever stresses they face in the coming day.
Before we get to work we each normally commute using public or private transport in a mad race to get to the office. A 2011 Australia wide survey found that up to 73 per cent of commuters found that the car journey to work left them in a stressed state before they had even started work. Workplace studies have found that in the post GFC world that workers are finding their stress levels increased as they work harder and longer to prove their worth to employers.
Australia still has the highest OECD group of nations average working week, with a 50-55 hour week now being commonly worked by employees. In a 2010 Australia wide study by the Australia Institute, it was found that almost 60 percent of Australians who work overtime say it stops them from exercising, and almost 35 percent believe it stops them from eating healthy meals. Australians worked more than 2 billion hours of unpaid overtime in 2009, at an average of 70 minutes per day, equating to a $72 billion gift to their employers. Stress was reported to affect over 80 percent of those surveyed who worked such overtime. This is not the whole story.
One of the drivers of workplace stress in workers and managers is a workplace culture and leadership rooted in a desire to achieve. The desire to achieve has been linked to both performance and success in the short term, but stress, burnout and lost productivity in the longer term. Achievement often drives passion and energy across a business which has certainly been show in studies to fuel growth and innovation in individuals and teams.
It is recognised in capitalistic societies that achievement is a valued and required ingredient in the private business sector. This is not surprising given many such businesses have external stakeholders and shareholders, and they may be publicly listed on a stock market. From this place there is often constant pressure for good short term results to be produced, and for results in the next period to exceed the last. Such outcomes drive positive share price and dividend outcomes to the demanding shareholders.
The problem is that as companies strive to keep producing and performing at record levels from their achievement drive, they simply start to plateau, fatigue and burnout. The positive stress of peak performance will over time switch into the negative stress for persons on the performance treadmill. The human body cannot sustain stress in a healthy way over time. This is simply a constraint of our human design. For those interested in understanding the link between stress, anxiety and depression I refer you to the Energetics Institute Newsletter for March 2011.
I come across companies who relentlessly focus on tasks and goals, and who rely excessively on quantitative measurements of staff performance. Studies have shown the reliance on measurement of performance alone creates a form of stress on employees. The focus on turnover, revenue, or sales targets can actually damage long term performance. Quantitative measurement of critical success factors is good business but measurement for its own sake is distracting, wasteful and may present a misleading picture via statistical representations.
I recently worked in an organisation that had previously engaged a Coaching and Consulting firm to lift performance. Their approach focussed primarily on the hard metrics, measures, Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s), and targets for staff. Little consideration was given to staff welfare, sustainability, morale, and leaders were instilled with a “command and coerce” directive style of leadership.
The short term impact of this coaching intervention was that profits and productivity increased in the first year, reached a plateau in the second year, and then came a 40% decline in profit and systematic issues in the third year. When I came in the fourth year they were in crisis.
The symptoms from the negative effects of the “achievement” model were all on display. An autocratic, metric measurement culture had instilled fear and a low-risk, low innovation culture. Staff felt used, disillusioned, depressed and burnt out. Some managers had taken to intimidation and bullying by using statistics to threaten and shame staff. “Soft” values and non-measurables such as staff morale were scorned at. Profit was the only god in this workplace. Staff had left in droves and now lawsuits for workplace harassment, bullying and injury were showing up. Workplace theft was a major issue (passive-aggressive retaliation by angry staff).
The damage done by this approach was not seen or appreciated by the Executive team. I used their own system of measurement to prove the fact that the experiment had been a net failure. When I measured the tangible and intangible profits, costs, losses and liabilities/risks over the 4 year period they had made only $20,000 profit. However they now had a dysfunctional and burnout workforce and culture that was in crisis, and they now had to re-invest via myself to turn around the effects of the original coaching outcomes. They now admit it was not worth it in the long term.
In the rush to achieve one often sees common behaviours such as frequent taking of shortcuts, lack of peer communication about events or projects in progress. Achievers are often blinded to their impact on others in the organisation as they pursue achievement and profit outcomes in a tunnel-vision way. Such behaviours can demolish trust and undermine morale and create the basis for the linear progression of staff experiencing stress, sliding into anxiety and for some then succumbing to depression and chronic fatigue/burnout.
Psychological studies by David McClelland of Harvard University, show that the average western educated and domiciled worker are driven by 3 internalised values. These partly have societal influences and are:
Achievement – the meeting or exceeding a standard of excellence or the improving of personal performance.Affiliation – the maintaining of close personal relationships.Power – the feeling of being strong and be able to influence or have an impact on others.
His studies showed that the dynamic tension of these 3 internalised values sometimes gets corrupted or compromised and one or two dominate. The most destructive is power alone without restraint by the other 2 balancing forces, and power mixed with achievement is another dangerous cocktail for its suppression of the socialised and feeling based affiliation, which often leads to corporate criminality, abuse and “crash and burn” outcomes. Both of these 2 variants are identified with the Narcissistic personality or the more commonly known “Corporate Psychopath” label.
Power as a value also could be a moderating or an extreme influence. Personalised power is often linked to the need and approach to control and manipulate others to make them feel weak and the powerful one to feel strong, and so is associated with the exploitation of others. Socialised power is a form of personalised power that comes from empowering others. Charismatic leaders are normally highly motivated by socialised power.
Interestingly for every mix and blended type of these 3 values the meeting of those needs gives us a sense of satisfaction and energises us, so we keep repeating these behaviours, whether or not they result in healthy, productive and adapted outcomes in the workplace that we may desire. We have a form of compulsive repetition behaviour that sees us driven from the values even when destructive outcomes are the result.
Studies show it is the power and achievement mix types, who primarily create neutral or demotivated workplace cultures where the dominant style was pacesetting, which drove short term growth, but at the expense of long term profitability. The short term growth often came about from personal heroics rather than a healthy process driven culture.
The answer to creating sustainable profit and growth outcomes partly lies in the leadership style enacted in the organisation. A leadership style that creates high performing and passionate workplaces based on socialised power and affiliation, where adaptive outcomes via using a broad range of styles situational to the issue or problem are a priority. This called on a mix of socialised power and affiliation to be dominant in the leaders value system for this to be possible.
Such leaders are strong in the areas of visionary, affiliative, participative, and mentoring skills and approaches, and provide vision, sought buy-in and commitment, and coached their people. Collaboration and consensus are important drivers to these leaders. They are able to create and maintain long term growth and profits and represent the most resilient model for sustained organisational performance and profit optimisation from the perspective of leadership.
Leadership Matters – Common Leadership Styles and their Impact on Workplace Stress
In our continuing look at the important concepts and factors around leadership, we pick up on the theme of stress in the workplace, and look at how the Harvard University delineated 6 key leadership personality styles can have a positive or negative effect on workplace stress.
1. DIRECTIVE STYLE
The directive style leader uses command-and-control behaviours which can be received by others as coercive, manipulative and stressful. In the act of telling other people what to do there is little room for negotiation, initiative, and creativity. The exercise of power and control increases when they are under stress but it has the effect of increasing the stress on all those around them. While a useful leadership style when a crisis exists, it is not a leadership style that promotes long term benefits to a typical organisation.
2. VISIONARY STYLE
The Visionary leader has a clear picture of where they wish to lead the organisation. They need to exercise authoritative and directive behaviours to a point to drive everyone towards that vision but such a leader will gain the buy-in and support of employees by clearly expressing their expectations, challenges and responsibilities in the context of the organisations overall direction and strategy. This approach is considered effective and can create positive stress due to the energising of staff, clarity of goals, and resulting commitment this generates. It can create negative stress when behaviours do not align to the vision or when tasks are actioned which contradict the vision.
3. AFFILITATIVE STYLE
The affiliative style leader emphasizes the employee and their needs over the job role needs. They tend to avoid confrontation or conflict. Whilst seldom effective as a primary motivator, it is effective as a stress reducer in staff who are in a crisis, or in high stress environments, especially where counterbalanced with some aspect of Visionary, Coaching, and Participative leadership styles. The affiliative leader can themselves end up stressed from being unable to deal with and resolve conflict situations.
4. PARTICPATIVE STYLE
This leader embraces a democratic and collaborative way of leading. The leader engages others in the decision making process as a way of building trust, buy-in and consensus, and where strong personalities and technical input is required, and where the leader may lack formal power and authority. It is an effective style especially where the leader can facilitate decisions from the input matrix and where consensus is not always possible. It has a stress reducing effect on all concerned and is linked to sustainable performance and profit outcome organisations, and in situations of high stress where the leader will not exert personal power.
5. PACESETTING STYLE
This style of leadership is denoted by personal examples, “heroics”, and a degree of personalised power in their role. They typically have critically high standards and make sure those standards are met even if they have to do the work themselves personally – which they frequently interfere and do. This approach can achieve short term goals but demoralise and stress those around the leader who feel judged and inferior. The organisation can become stressed from such a Narcissistic leader who may not understand the negative impact of their actions on others around them. These leaders are known to “crash and burn” in high stress environments.
6. COACHING STYLE
This leadership style engages staff in a long-term form of development and mentoring with the leader and executive. It is an emerging value system for leaders which is providing proven long term benefits to staff productivity, morale, passion and performance. Coaching requires a value system that includes socialised power as a key component. Staff feel valued and seen in this approach and it may involve the use of external training programmes to supplement the leader as coach. This is a stress reducer for many experiencing such leadership
Corporate Energetics recognises the impact of stress, anxiety and depression on workplace performance as well as workers health and well-being. We will be running a 2 day weekend course titled “Healing Depression and Anxiety on March 26 & 27 2011”. It is suitable for organisations to send affected employees to this course, or have Corporate Energetics come into your workplace and run a similar course tailored to your workplace needs and time constraints. Please contact us for more details on our Corporate training offerings for organisations.
Have a safe and productive month!!
Director, Corporate Energetics