Managers need leadership training to check staff well-being, says David Maida
People often talk about how to manage teams well, but Mark Wager, leadership coach and managing director of Elite LD, says managers also need to be aware of how well team members are managing.
"A lot of people really underestimate just how much pressure builds up on people," Wager said.
Reality hit home for Wager when he was in his 20s, working in a London finance house. One night he was in a car with his colleague, Andy.
Andy was usually the life of the party, but he just stopped, placed his head on the steering wheel and started crying. The pressure-cooker work environment had driven him to an emotional breakdown. Andy was quietly put on stress leave, but his colleagues never saw him again.
Wager was surprised at how the office continued with business as usual. The lesson he learned is not to stress out in the belief that you are indispensable.
"We all believed the hype we were given about how we were completely invaluable," he said. "A lot of people fall into that mentality of, 'Well, if I'm not here I'm going to let people down and the whole thing is going to fall apart' ... [but] everyone can be replaced."
Wager realises small workplaces might be a bit different. But for most people, working 50-60 hours a week should not be seen as a badge of honour. In fact, it probably means the organisation is not working well. Wager has been there himself. "For six whole months I realised I'd never spoken to a single person who was not connected with work. It was so consuming."
Working long hours is a sign that the organisation does not have the correct resourcing and/or the person is having difficulty handling the job, Wager says. It's rare that someone can keep up that type of effort long-term.
"Either they break down or they're doing 40 hours of work that's spread over 50 hours. A lot of people in New Zealand who work those long hours do so because they like that feeling of being defined by their job ... It raises their self-image that this place can't live without me."
Wager has been in New Zealand for 10 years now, and knows that most managers have been promoted up through the ranks. People have found themselves in management positions because of their technical abilities without any real leadership training.
He says he turns these managers into leaders by teaching them the personal and communication skills needed to exert influence on others. Managing stress in teams and in managers is an important aspect. For instance, good leaders don't have to constantly be checking their email.
"It's not necessarily good to be checking emails at 1am," Wager said. "It's not necessary. It doesn't mean I'm a fantastic manager."
It's easy to stress about work because we place such emphasis on our jobs: "When we allow something other than ourselves to define us, an uneven amount of importance is placed on that thing. So, when something goes wrong, our reaction is out of proportion."
Wager says the key to avoiding this situation is making a conscious effort to maintain balance by realising there are other things in life outside of work. Managers and organisations can help staff with this by viewing them as more than just the position they fill. He says it's a practical investment for leaders to spend 10 per cent or so of their time casually talking to team members.
Good managers don't just sit in their office with their door open and think they're making themselves available to staff. They are more likely to see how well their people are coping by visiting them at their work stations.
"The key of trying to communicate and motivate people is knowing what their triggers are."
Leaders can help manage stress levels by asking people if they've taken a break, and by sometimes taking the team out to lunch and discussing things other than work. Wager says good managers can also act as a buffer to the stress at the top of an organisation by not whingeing to their team.
"Part of the job as manager is trying to keep a lot of pressure away from individuals - particularly stuff that they don't have control over."
Wager says lying is not the answer, but if something is just going to bring down morale, then workers might not need to know about it.
"People need to be aware of the bigger picture, but they don't need to know the pressures that go with it. As a leader, it's your role to burden the worries so that other people don't."
But stress can often creep in, and in New Zealand's relatively laid-back culture, it can build up slowly without being noticed. It's often the small things which push people over the edge. "Because people do have that impression that it is laid-back, when pressure does build up, people don't see it or don't recognise it."
Leaders can help manage their own stress levels by learning to delegate. Particularly if a person who is good technically at their job is promoted to manager, they must resist the temptation to do the work themselves.
Leaders are the ones most at risk of falling victim to stress without anyone noticing. Organisations should have clear policies about how to escalate issues through management and make sure there is someone people feel comfortable approaching. "Don't fall into the trap of thinking everything is fine just because you don't hear anything. Sometimes the opposite is true."
Contact David Maida at: www.DavidMaida.com