Monday, 31 January 2011 00:00

Stress, It Adds Opportunity to the Job

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Banging head on keyboard

It was a classical interview in all respects, except they kept asking, "Can you handle stress?" After while, I replied that on my last project gas mask training was a first-day requisite, meetings were routinely held in bomb shelters, there were written emergency evacuation plans, and uniformed men and women with M-16s were common sights on the city streets. That was stress. I should have known better. Stress comes from the unknown, the events in life for which we have no plans.

Planning and Change

Computing stress

Once you have a plan, life gets better. Stress's pressure still exists, but it is manageable. Since business excels on planning, anxieties should be controlled and manageable in this neatly constrained environment. So, why is work so stressful? In a sentence, poor planning, lack of prioritization, and an environment that is ill adapted to handle change. Of these, the largest contributor is the organization's inability to flex in the ever-changing business environment. A company culture that is nimble and quick can handle a new direction for the company, a division, or a project and maintains a relatively stress-free work place. Priorities and plans fall into place quickly as the team adapts and moves on.

Sources of Stress

Generally, situations that are out of your control create stress. New priorities, changes in business direction, other's indecision, organizational strife and infighting, poorly defined goals are all sources of pressure that add to the strain experienced every day. Unfortunately, this is the way of life in many companies. Fickle people change their minds, personalities clash, pride and ego inhibit communication, and managers are promoted to their level of incompetence. These all add to office stress and it is your responsibility to figure out how to thwart it—or how to live with the tension. The key is to correctly identify the source of the stress and create a plan to address it.

Not all of the sources are out of your control. Self-induced stress further underscores its relationship with poor planning and prioritization. The next time you are under stress, take a long hard look in the mirror. Understand what components of the anxiety are completely under your control. You may be the biggest contributor to the constant worry. Is the goal of getting a project done on time because you want to impress your boss, get the promotion, or get the recognition? Is that really what you need in your life? Are you really the only one that can do that work or can it be delegated? Does it really need to be done to the quality that you put on it? Striving for perfection is poor prioritization at its finest. Does getting the project done a little late improve your quality of life more than the elevation in status does? Maybe, simply showing your boss the business case for why the deadline is unrealistic or why you need an additional resource will bear fruit and reduce the pressure.

Controlling Stress

Surely, the standard remedies for stress (exercise, meditation, etc.) are valuable tools, but they do not relieve stress. They address the effects. To reduce stress, apply your energy as close as you can to its source. This usually means doing work outside your expertise and in politically charged areas. If decisions are not being made, determine how to make them yourself or through another path. If communication between two people is poor, step in and enhance the dialog. The tricks for doing this are very case specific, so it makes sense to give a few examples.


Case 1: In a hierarchically managed company, communication between the senior level managers had completely broken down. There was no trust. Animosity was the best word to describe the senior management's relationship. I stepped out of my assigned role, to act as a communication conduit between the two groups. By proposing solutions to each group separately and publishing the results later, I made the decisions that the managers would not. It was more work, but the stress from business deadlines and lack of decisions was abated.

Case 2: When faced with constant scope modifications, I change the approach's methodology. The requirements were stuck in an ever-changing cycle and the customer could not decide what they wanted, the project was switched to an iterative approach. This was not an overt or publicized action. I asked what the most important feature for the product was and concentrated the team on building that piece. When the customer saw it in action, they started focusing on the most important features and the arguments faded. The tactic replaced the stress of missing a deadline and customers not knowing what they wanted with a new plan on how to get to the desired result.

Taking Action

Stress is the worst when you do nothing to address it. All the armament provided in the opening example is an illusion of safety and protection. Had war broken out with nerve gas and bombs, would the shelters and gas masks have helped? Would the evacuation plan have gotten us out of harms way before things started to fly? Maybe, maybe not. The stress, however, was reduced since we felt there was a plan in place and people had an understanding of the complexity. We could then focus our attention on reducing the complexity of the project.

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