In the world of “duh” comments, here comes one now: Bosses cause stress for their employees. If you have had more than two jobs in your lifetime, you already knew that. It also means that if you are a boss, you may be the source of stress for your followers. This is also not earth-shattering news. However, in his book, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to be the Best…and Learn From the Worst, Dr. Robert Sutton points out that, while 75% of employees report their direct supervisor as the most stressful part of their job, if you have a good boss, “you have at least a 20 percent lower risk of getting a heart attack and if you stay with your boss for four years, you have at least a 39 percent lower risk.”
Wow! Who knew? If you are a manager of other people, you might be as good for them as a well-balanced diet and a fairly rigorous exercise program combined! The Journal of the American College of Cardiology confirmed these findings, by the way, finding that high levels of stress at are exactly like other risk factors such as smoking and high cholesterol.
1. Do employees get “formal” on you? Remember that formality is a sign of respect because it imposes a set of rules on your followers. If they have to be more alert about protocol when they are communicating with you, it is likely that they experience greater stress.
2. Have your followers had any input into the expectations you hold for them? Here I don’t mean do they occasionally have a goal-setting session. I’m talking about discussions where those who look to you for leadership are able to determine how much of a load they can bear.
3. Is there flexibility in the pressure? With some leaders, I’m reminded of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon where everybody is above average. When pushed to the limit, people feel stress. Some of the most motivated people I’ve ever known are the most satisfied when they are in the midst of some drive. At the same time, holding these expectations for everybody at all times is highly stressful to your followers. Many leaders don’t actually feel this way but they are afraid that if they let up, people will start slacking. News flash! If they are not slacking now because they are afraid of you, it’s not sustainable any way.
Most of us are blissfully unaware of our impact on others because we are blissfully unaware of ourselves. The more power you hold as a leader, the more likely it is that you are misguided in your own perception of yourself. In many cases, you will be the last to know unless you actively and continuously look for feedback. Getting real feedback can be tough if you only depend on “feedback conversations” with your followers. Have those conversations, for sure, but also pay attention to what’s going on around you. Take a day or two with the specific purpose of stepping back and looking closely at what’s going on with your followers. It is likely that there are abundant clues about the level of stress they are under.
It is improbable that you can create a stress-free environment, but you can be more aware of the stress being generated and more conscious of the role you play in it. Once you have a better picture of what’s going on, you can decide on what actions you can take to address it.