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How Stress Affects Managerial Style at Work

Steps to become an effective manager who handles stress well.

Key points

  • Managers who are great to work for one moment but difficult the next have trouble retaining good employees.
  • Those who handle stress well engender loyalty and may well be highly effective in a management role.
  • Learning to "respond, not react" can be a constructive management tactic.

"It's like there are two Toms," a friend told me recently when describing a management problem she was dealing with. "One is a great guy to work for–thoughtful, considerate, easy-going, and reasonable. The other is like a different person–harassed, impulsive, impatient, and almost crazy -- impossible to please. The trouble is, I never know which Tom is going to show up.

 Yan Krukov / Pexels
Unpredictable management behavior is a frequent source of employee frustration.
Source: Yan Krukov / Pexels

"I just can't work for him anymore," she concluded. "Part of me likes and respects him, and I know I've learned an awful lot from him; he's as smart as they come. But he's making me crazy. I'm constantly anxious, worried about who I'm going to be working for on any given day."

Jekyll and Hyde Behavior

If I were a Human Resources hiring executive for management, one of the most critical attributes I'd focus on is how a prospective hire handles stress. After numerous decades in management and consulting, I've concluded that all too often, as described in the story above, unpredictable Jekyll and Hyde managerial behavior is less a product of a deep-rooted personality issue than it is simply an inability to handle stress constructively.

Because there's ample stress in management positions: tight deadlines, no shortage of people problems, and constant pressure to do more with less, all amplified by substantial amounts of money on the line for poor performance. Stress is a differentiator. Those who handle it well engender loyalty and may well be highly effective in a management role. Those who can't take it tend to burn through employees like a western wildfire.

It's only natural: People like consistency in their relationships, whether with a friend, spouse, or manager. People want to know who they will be spending time with when they walk through an office door (or log into a Zoom meeting). They don't want to have to guess. Uncertainty breeds anxiety, which breeds discontent, which leads to turnover. While it's great to be calm and pleasant part of the time, past decency is quickly forgotten as soon as Dr. Jekyll is off duty and Mr. Hyde returns for the day.

Respond, Don't React

So what can a manager do who knows they have trouble with stress? While handling stress with equanimity is easier said than done, of course, there are practical steps one can take to tame the beast (or at least keep it on a tighter leash).

I'm a big believer in mindfulness as a useful management tool, and in particular, for this challenge, I like the notion of "responding, not reacting." In my experience, I've found this to be an excellent simple articulation of something a stress-beset manager can do right: Try as best you can to respond, not react. It's an efficient tactic, as opposed to a reflexive agitated reaction, which for cases like the one described above, is the path of least resistance to lapse into.

As noted, management contains many legitimate stressors. So angry agitation is easy. Taking the time to count to ten (or practice whatever delaying tactic feels natural) can create the emotional space to enable one to come up with an appropriate, thoughtful response instead of an exciting off-the-cuff reaction.

As the example above describes, behaving like "two Toms" (or two Thomasinas) is invariably a poor recipe for long-term management success. Consistency, not unpredictability, builds loyalty. It's a safe bet our friend Tom was doing more reacting than responding, and as a result, he'll soon be doing more costly, time-consuming hiring. Learning to cultivate a measured response in the face of stress is a valuable career asset.