Take Charge of Work Stress Starting With Your Managers

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How to Address a Key Organizational Issue – Stress – Starting With Managers

Don't miss Chapter 31, of Gallup's latest book It's the Manager.

In it, you'lll uncover this crucial finding: "Managers report more stress and burnout, worse work-life balance and worse physical wellbeing than the individual contributors on the teams they lead."

Managers also account for 70% of the variance in their team's engagement. So, their stress can have wide organizational implications.

These findings are particularly alarming considering recent work by Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer. In his book, Dying for a Paycheck, Pfeffer sounds the alarm about workplace stress, gravely asserting that it is a leading cause of death.

This is a call for leaders to think expansively about how to address a key organizational issue–stress–starting with managers.

Stress-inducing factors, such as long work hours, work-family conflict and low job autonomy are matters that leaders and managers directly influence when establishing the expectations for their teams.

The best managers develop human potential through meaningful work and create a performance-oriented culture for their teams while allowing for the flexibility needed to attend to a full life.

Selecting managers who are good at this, and then freeing them up to focus on people development, is the foundation of a healthy workplace.

First, Focus on What Matters Most–Hiring the Right Managers

Selecting the right manager is essential to create an environment that maintains healthy levels of stress.

Managers are a critical link in translating organizational needs directly to their teams, and how they do this sets the stage for how employees experience their work environment every day.

Despite pressure, effective managers create a workplace environment in which employees feel energized to achieve outcomes and experience the flexibility that is needed to achieve integration between work and life outside work.

Poor managers do the opposite. Rather than raise the bar, they contribute to inefficiencies and dysfunction, creating negative ripples among their teams.

Choosing managers with a natural ability to manage may seem obvious, but consultants who work with hiring managers every day point out that it's not as obvious as it may seem. Attributes like subject-matter expertise can be significant glare factors that get in the way of hiring for natural leadership ability.

For example, when hiring for a highly skilled team, such as a team of engineers, some expertise may be needed, but engineers will also need investment in their team morale, performance and development that a naturally gifted manager would provide.

To act, start by evaluating your hiring practices. Are you able to effectively identify the managers with a natural ability to lead teams?

Make assessing how a manager will lead a key part of your decision-making process. Consider using a structured, objective and validated assessment that will help you to single out those who are naturally adept at managing people.

Next, Find Out if Your Current Managers Love Managing People

Consider the state of your management teams. Are your managers doing what they do best every day?

Up to two-thirds of them might not think so according to Gallup's employee engagement database. If managers are not doing what they do best, perhaps leading a team is not their best role fit, which can result in stress for everyone.

To get at the root of why this may be occurring, leaders must consider incentives that may attract managers for the wrong reasons.

For example, if your organization's career development pathway encourages pay growth or title advancement by attaining a management role, you're missing the mark.

Review your incentives to be sure you're not encouraging individuals to take management roles because it's the only career trajectory available in your company.

Instead, allow a growth path that incentivizes everyone to continue to grow their pay and prestige by developing their expertise in what they're best at.

The very best in any role may have the opportunity to earn at least equivalent pay with–or in some cases even more than–the manager to ensure incentives align with the notion of encouraging each person to do what they do best.

Get creative with how you think about development paths within your company. An alternative to the traditional hierarchical path for development is a growth path that may look more like a jungle gym or a spiderweb.

In this model, the employee can experiment with new opportunities by growing horizontally, perhaps with new certifications, or diagonally, by trying out similar skills in a new division or with a new client.

The key to this structure is to always align the growth of employees with their natural interests and abilities. Then, allow those who naturally excel at managing to take on management challenges, while others can shine at what they do best.

Lastly, Alleviate Sources of Stress for Your Managers, and Empower Them to Focus on People

Managers can't set others up for success if they aren't set up for success first.

People manager jobs tend to include lots of management tasks that don't relate to leading people, and these overloaded job descriptions are a big problem.

In fact, "[Managers] are less likely to know what's expected of them than the people they manage."

Gallup analytics show that employees thrive when they have regular, ongoing conversations with their managers and that a healthy job environment includes such development.

We've discovered there are five critical coaching conversations that each manager should expect to have throughout the year with each person on her team. This investment takes time.

The best managers are expected to prioritize these meetings, prepare for them and seek results. While managers don't intend to disappoint people on their teams, they do when they don't prioritize such meetings.

As managers are often pulled in many directions with many competing priorities, failing to invest in such meetings can happen more often than is ideal.

So, review the job descriptions for your managers and consider what you expect of those who lead your teams.

Have you established an ideal range of associates per manager? What percentage of a manager's time do you expect for them to invest in their people?

Consider how competing priorities (budget, project tasks, timelines, client deliverables, etc.) may make it difficult for managers to prioritize people needs first. In short, is a people-focus valued or is it secondary to other functions that may distract your managers?

Eliminate or reassign tasks that may get in the way of a manager's ability to focus on people. Individualize what remains based on the key strengths of each manager.

As you free your managers up, they will have the time to enact the strategies we know make a difference for positive employee development.

Imagine if your managers could do what they do best every day and weren't overloaded with responsibilities.

The alarm bells that Jeffrey Pfeffer is sounding about stress in the workplace should convince leaders to take serious action on behalf of the people they lead.

As Viktor Frankl reminds us in his classic memoir Man's Search for Meaning, "A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being … will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the 'why' for his existence and will be able to bear almost any 'how.'"

The best managers ensure that the how isn't only bearable for their people, but life-affirming and that the why of work is something to live for.

Take Charge

So, take charge of your human capital strategy by putting careful selection of managers first. Make development about what people, including your managers, do best naturally. Instead of overloading your managers with responsibilities, make their job descriptions lean and aligned with their strengths.

Your managers will then have the time and space they need to focus on people, stay healthy themselves and lead your teams to achieve your organization's mission.

This article was reprinted with permission from Gallup. It was written by Shannon Mullen O'Keefe. The original can be found here.