Reduce Stress with a Sense of Control

This article first appeared in the Havard Business Review

There’s no question or debate that workplace stress levels are at critical levels and are escalating. The American Institute of Stress (AIS) reveals that 80% of us feel stress on the job and almost half say they need help in managing that stress.  The StressPulse survey by ComPsych, an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider, shows the main causes of that stress are:  1) workload (36%); 2) people issues (31%); 3) balancing professional and personal lives (20%); and 4) job security (8%).

Team dynamics are also a big deal when it comes to workplace stress, in terms of the way teams operate and how team members interact with each other. The above statistics show that team dynamics directly affect a whopping 92% of what causes the most stress.  Being part of a team can be a quick road to disappointment, frustration, and burnout, especially when some team members work harder than others, when some are on time and others are consistently late, when there’s drama and tension resulting from gossip, and when team leaders play favorites.

Team leaders must be aware of the subtleties and undercurrents that dominate the human psyche. Each of us comes to work with a set of expectations. Team leaders expect workers to be on time, to do their jobs, to meet deadlines, to produce results, and to get along with each other. Based on the AIS data above, team members expect that workload burdens will be assigned equally, that they will be treated with respect, and that the company understands that they have personal lives too. Team leaders and workers alike tend to get frustrated, stressed, and even burned out when these expectations aren’t met.

The AIS opens their workplace stress report by saying, “Increased levels of job stress as assessed by the perception of having little control but lots of demands have been demonstrated to be associated with increased rates of heart attack, hypertension, and other disorders.” Managers must therefore take the time to bring their teams together and collectively create a set of agreements that form a team charter. Unclear and therefore often unmet expectations set teams up for failure. Agreements, on the other hand, set the team up for success, fulfillment, and most importantly, a sense of control.

When I speak to corporate audiences around the country, I ask that individuals give us their personal definition of stress. Without fail, the more than 10,000 responses I’ve received contain some thread pertaining to lack of control. Taking the time and making an effort to forge a written charter based on reciprocal agreements, if nothing else, creates a perception of some semblance of control. The very act of soliciting team members’ input reduces stress levels, giving them the feeling that they are, at the very least, heard. This also leads to team buy-in, proprietorship, and the feeling of responsibility for team performance and well-being.

The charter should include these basic foundational tenets:

  1. I agree to be on time, realizing everyone’s time is limited and extremely valuable.
  2. I agree to show respect to every other member of the team and give them the benefit of the doubt.
  3. I agree to give my best effort in accomplishing every task, the team’s mission, and our shared purpose.
  4. I agree not to engage in any gossip about my team members and to put a stop to it if I encounter it.
  5. I agree to communicate early and often pertaining to any time off needed for my personal life.
  6. I agree to handle disputes, perceived offenses, or conflicts with dignity and professionalism.

Whether a member of the team, several members, or the entire team is not functioning optimally, referring to the written charter removes all the drama, tension, and wild emotions that tend to get attached to making course corrections. The charter of agreements holds everyone accountable —  manager and member alike. It creates an atmosphere of fairness and equity, and of respect and trust.  It generates a meaningful exchange of ideas, fosters dynamic communication and collaboration, and facilitates durable working relationships.

Operating from a set of expectations is certainly the path of least resistance on the front end, but in the long run, that approach engenders massive amounts of disappointment, frustration, stress, and subsequent burnout. Forging agreements together takes courage, time, and effort; however, the results are a high-performing team that thrives, especially under pressure. A team that is committed to resolving conflict instead of escalating it can flourish in a climate that defeats the negative effects of stress, and banishes burnout.

Andrew D. Wittman is founder of the Mental Toughness Training Center, a leadership consultancy specializing in peak performance, team dynamics, and resolving conflict in the workplace. He’s a U.S. Marine Corps infantry combat veteran, and a former police officer, federal agent, and special agent for the U.S. Capitol Police. Wittman led the security detail for Nancy Pelosi and has personally protected Hillary Clinton, Tom Delay, Trent Lott, King Abdullah of Jordan, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and Sir Elton John. He’s the author of Ground Zero Leadership: CEO of You.

Call Now