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Enhancing Organizational Performance


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Zhang Shuhong killed himself due to stress. The Chinese executive made toys for export as a contractor to Mattel. Millions of the toys were found to contain lead paint, paint that could cause mental retardation in children if ingested, and were recalled. His factory lay idle, his workers left. The Washington Post (August 14, 2007) reports that it was thought that his company was about to go bankrupt.  

Interestingly the closest word to stress in Chinese, according to the American Institute of Stress, is a two symbol pictogram translated as “crisis”. The first symbol in the pictogram means “danger” and the second symbol in the pictogram means “opportunity” – taken together they are used to indicate a crisis – literally a “dangerous opportunity”. 

(An aside: My guess is that China is a country awash in lead, from gasoline exhaust to paint to a whole host of other sources. (Not to mention other severe pollution). You can only wonder at the squandered opportunities represented by the aggregated cumulative loss of intelligence in the next generation of children growing up there exposed to high levels of lead as China industrializes.

As a further aside: I believe we are kidding ourselves if we think that the current issues surrounding impurities or contamination in Chinese exports are new issues. I think it is safe to assume that this has been an on-going problem and its impacts on us are completely unknown. For instance, there has been tremendous concern about the increased levels of autism to be found in children over the last several decades. The mercury used as a  preservative in childhood immunizations has been pointed to as a potential culprit by desperate parents only to be denied by research saying that the evidence is just not pointing in that direction. But I have to wonder what other exposures our children have had to unregulated and uninspected and potentially contaminated imports? We can’t even guess.)

Rolandas Milinavicius, a US car dealer who exported cars to Lithuania was also facing stress. His Georgia based car dealership was floundering and his finances were shaky. According to CNN, two of his employees, a 28 year old and a 25 year old, came to him and asked for a raise. His response? He shot them dead on the spot.

Alexandra Scott a 4 year old cancer patient faced stress as well. Upon learning of her diagnosis and until the age of 8, the time of her death, “Alex” dealt with her stress by helping to raise money for finding a cure for childhood cancer though her lemonade stand. She like the other two had to feel like there was little hope, no way out of their predicament. Yet she reacted very positively to her stress while the other two clearly did not. What can we learn from a 4 year old about how to deal with stress? I think quite a lot.

We all face stress, and we all respond somewhat differently to that stress. Yet I would make the argument, as I have done elsewhere, that People are People©, so why do we react very differently depending on the situation?  

In its purest form and definition, stress is absolutely natural; it is with us every day. In fact you would die without it. There is a certain amount of stress when you are hungry or thirsty that makes you go in search of food or drink. The drive to reproduce is a “stressor” and the New York Times (July 31, 2007) in a story titled “The Whys of Mating: 237 Reasons and Counting” describes research done cataloging the reasons people gave for engaging in sex. Reducing stress was one of those listed. Stressors are pressures that drive you to action, but sometimes those stressors are such that we simply freeze, unable to act, or we take action that is by anyone’s definition inappropriate.

The perception of stress and the reactions to it can be modified based on societal, community, or work group support. Science News (July 7th, 2007) in an article called “Trouble in Paradise” describes some of the hypothesized causes of schizophrenia in Palau, a Republic in the South Pacific. The incidence of schizophrenia there is higher than in other parts of the world and this hereditary disorder tends to first appear as young men and women deal with the stress of moving from childhood into adult roles. A woman showing signs of the disorder will receive support from her family and clan. A man showing signs of the disorder will tend to become an outcast with little support, unable to find a job or fulfill traditional roles. The combination of stress and rejection is thought to turn their schizophrenia into a much more difficult to deal with illness, when compared to the women suffering from the disorder, than it otherwise would be.

It is very clear that reactions to stress are person specific, but can also will be moderated or not by the environment in which the person is surrounded. Things that can seem trivial to one person can be extremely stressful to another. A child’s fear and associated stress of being alone in the dark, or worrying about a monster under the bed, is just as real to that child, at their stage of development, as getting into a “good” university can be to a teenager, finding your first job as a young adult, losing your business and your future to an adult, as is the death of a spouse to a long-time married couple. They can all be experiencing equal levels of stress as they react to very different issues. While the causes of stress can be different for different people, the experienced stress levels, the physiological reactions for those people can be exactly the same, even when to an outside observer the issues casing the stress are felt to be at quite different levels.

There are 4 main causes of stress (according to work by the University of Michigan):

  • Social stressors – finding yourself in and having to deal with new and potentially uncertain social situations, workload and deadlines, financial pressures, dealing with a death, changing intimate relationships (e.g. divorce or marriage), starting a new job or leaving an old one etc;
  • Environment – changes within the physical environment in which you familiar, dealing with crowds, noise or traffic, lack of privacy;  
  • Physiological – illness, injuries, hormonal fluctuation or inadequate sleep or nutrition;
  • Your thoughts – the way that you think about the situations in which you find yourself, for instance always thinking that the worst will happen (catastrophizing),  by living with extremely rigid self-imposed rules, perfectionism, or degrading yourself.

Reactions to stress include physical symptoms (e.g. headaches, ulcers, tense muscles), emotional symptoms (e.g. depression, anxiety, anger), and cognitive symptoms (e.g. unwanted or repetitive thoughts, lack of ability to concentrate). Long term exposure to stress can be contributing factors to major illnesses such as heart attach or stroke.

What can an organization do to help employees reduces stress? People make their worst decisions if stressed, and react poorly when they can see no way out of their predicament, when they feel that they have lost control. To the extent that the organization can give people a sense of control, and to help them see a way out of the stressful situation the organization can help them reduce stress levels. Can employees for instance take control over their schedule? Can they flex and work from home as possible? If they are to be held accountable for a process ensure that they have authority over that process. As a manager, ask yourself what you can do to enable your employees, to make it easier for them to do their jobs. The chief responsibility of a manager is to provide employees what they need to get their work done, not to oversee work. The best managers are those that can create the conditions that allow their fellow employees to excel. I have to wonder if one was to do linkage research on stress whether we would find solid evidence for optimum stress levels which would maximizing business performance. I would that that either too little or too much would not optimize performance.

After a major organizational catastrophe, those employees who were involved with fixing things, with getting the organization up and running again, while they may be working hard, have been shown to be more positive about the situation than other employees who are sitting on the sidelines. In fact, sitting on the sidelines can be a stress inducing factor, as has been demonstrated in organization after organization. Those employees who indicate on survey results that they are overworked are much more positive about the organization than those employees who report that they do not have enough to do. Not having enough to do or not having what is perceived to be meaningful work makes the employee feel that their potential to contribute is not valued by the organization and hence that the organization does not value them as a person. Among the worst managers are those that simply let their employees wither, leaving them to their own devices. By not engaging their employees the manager avoids situations that may be uncomfortable for them but is inducing added stress onto their employees.

Other steps organizations can take to help employees reduce stress include education about stress and to provide mechanisms for relieving stress. Realize though that people may have as many ways of dealing with stress as there are types of stress. You may have seen the recent commercial (playing in the New York market) about that organization that is wondering how they can improve productivity? One person suggests to the boss that they remove the half-pipe skateboard ramp located in the office; he says “No, the half-pipe stays”. They are trying to be funny (not too successfully) but the subordinates miss the underlying notion that the half-pipe is not necessarily a productivity killer; it may actually enhance productivity by helping people deal with stress.

Can old rocks reduce stress? Hyderabad, a city in India is growing at a phenomenal rate. Its population has doubled in the last 25 years and is projected to keep increasing. Hyderabad has rocks. Not pebbles, not cobblestones, but big, huge boulders that rest in odd places, sometimes stacked on top of each other in strange positions (New York Times, August 17th, 2007). These boulders were placed there by the forces of nature millions of years ago when the diluvial plain on which Hyderabad is located was underwater.  As developers do what they do, develop, these rock are in the way. They blast them, crushing them as no more than mere obstacles, in the way of progress. People see their environment, the familiar landscape changing. The growing population and the corresponding lack of privacy, and increased noise levels are likely driving increased levels of stress. Along comes the Society to Save Rocks, an emerging citizen’s movement. The society, as its name implies, wants the developers to spare the rocks arguing that the billion year old rocks can never be replaced and are part of the city’s heritage. But I wonder if there is an added benefit to having these old familiar rocks kept in place and in giving the citizens of Hyderabad some sense of control over what form future development of their city will take. I wonder if the citizen’s movement, possibly unbeknownst to them, is helping all located in that city reduce their stress levels.

There are many factors that can cause us, many times rightfully so, to be stressful. There are many other factors to which we are not even aware, that were we, our stress levels would be even higher, in fact might approach an unmanageable level. Given that, where we can reduce stress in our lives, it is likely a very good thing.

“Stress: The confusion created when one’s mind overrides the body’s basic desire to choke the living daylights out of some jerk who desperately deserves it”. – Unknown

 “Stress is when you wake up screaming and you realize you haven’t fallen asleep yet” –Unknown

 “In times of great stress or adversity, it’s always best to keep busy, to plow your anger and your energy into something positive.” – Lee Iacocca

“Stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness” – Richard Carlson

“The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it”.  -Attributed to both Jim Goodwin and Sydney J. Harris

“The mark of a successful man is one that has spent an entire day on the bank of a river without feeling guilty about it”.  – Unknown

“There is more to life than increasing its speed”. – Mohandas K. Gandhi

“Tension is who you think you should be.  Relaxation is who you are”. – Chinese Proverb

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 6, 2009 at 3:56 pm

Posted in Human Behavior

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