Tough Economy? Smart Managers Dial the Stress Level Down, Not Up

The knee-jerk response to cost-reduction pressures in an economic downturn is turn up the heat to wring greater productivity out of your work force. This is not your best option, and will hurt more than help.

A smarter approach is to get more out of your people by tapping into what people really care about, in all parts of their lives. When you do this — for real, not just as window dressing for some faux social welfare program — you not only reduce stress, you decrease time wasted on activities that don’t matter, boost trust with the company, and build resilience.

Contrast these three approaches you might take as a manager of a solid performer when times are tough:

“Hey Sarah, we’re having a bad year, so if you want any kind of bonus at all, you’re going to have to suck it up and work harder than ever before. Sorry, I know it’s tough, but that’s just the reality.”

“Hey Sarah, I know that there’s a lot of pressure on you now, on all of us, really, and I want to make sure you’re getting it all done. Let me know how I can help.”

“Hey Sarah, I know that there’s a lot of pressure on you now, on all of us, really, and I want to make sure you’re taking care of all the things that are important to you, so that you don’t burn out during this especially intense period. What ideas do you have about small changes in how things get done that you can try to make life a little easier — so that you have the strength and focus you need now to perform well for our business, which desperately needs your best efforts?”

The first option helps Sarah face and hopefully deal with the harsh reality, and that’s an essential part of your job as her manager. You’ve also tied economic incentives to her performance, though the criteria for achievement are based not on results but instead on behavior–often a wasteful allocation of pay. But you’ve not dealt with whatever Sarah’s got going on in her life, and so the burnout risk is high.

The second option shows your empathy, to a degree, and your general interest in being supportive, but it’s passive and vague so it’s not likely to change Sarah’s actions, nor have her feel that you’re serious about providing real support.

The third option has the best chance of producing the results you want from Sarah. You’re acknowledging the pressure and you’re thinking of Sarah as a person, not just an employee. This caring approach will likely be returned with loyalty and extraordinary effort. You’re expressing the expectation that she’s going to have practical ideas for performance improvements that are rooted in her having a better life and greater opportunity to get done what’s most important to her, sending the message that you want to hear those ideas and that you’re willing to try them. The risks are low because you’re not telling Sarah she can do whatever she wants, only that you’re willing to try new ways of getting things done that are good for her and for your business.

On top of these benefits, when you convey this expectation across the board, you’re creating an opportunity to see who among your employees responds best to a crisis by innovating with how things get done–more data for your assessment of their respective advancement potential.

Most importantly, though, when you take this approach you’re likely to see improved satisfaction and performance in all parts of life, including work. My research team and I found that when people undertake smart experiments designed to produce what I call “four-way wins” — intended benefits for work, home, community, and self (mind, body, and spirit) — they shift some of their attention from work and dedicate it to the other domains. Yet their satisfaction and performance in all domains, including work, goes up. The paradox: You get more out of people at work the more you pay attention to their lives beyond work. This is especially important in times of great stress, when pressures in the domains of family, self and community can be particularly acute.

One Response to “Tough Economy? Smart Managers Dial the Stress Level Down, Not Up”

  1. Dave Angelow says:


    I agree wholeheartedly with you comments and perspective for getting the most of staff during a challenging time. That said I do have a question/observation – what does one do where the company culture and environment is unbalanced?

    What I’m really asking is how does one best make a difference with staff that are subject to “matrix management” and get turn-up-the-performance (stress) messages from others in leadership roles?

    From where I sit it’s a difficult management challenge to motivate and retain when the overall culture is one that opts toward pushing and stress rather than reaching for the heart.

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