Social Enterprise

The practical results of competitive stress


I recently stumbled across a discussion of “competitive stress”; the growing tendency to show off by talking about how much stress we have in our lives. It's a no-holds barred competition where the person with the worst demonstrated psychological trauma wins. Since it's an intangible competition, it ends up being a swapping of tall-tales not unlike the storytelling competitions our grandfathers engaged in over beers while fishing.

The article talks about the social ramifications of competitive stress for an individual. It's the usual litany of loss of sleep, bonding though shared experience, and how we create cycles of stress though positive reinforcement. Although crouched in scientific terms, the whole idea doesn't strike me as groundbreaking.

More interesting, and untouched, is the question of whether or not managers deliberately set out to create this competition. It is, after all, a useful extension of the constant message of fear fed to us every day. The higher we ratchet up the fear the better people will perform, or so goes the thinking. Give people nothing but scraps to fight over and they will, to take care of their families in an increasingly risky world.

I've met several managers who deliberately create these atmosphere of fear. They regard it as quite an accomplishment and believe it will accomplish their goals. The short term results are usually pretty impressive as well. People do work hard in short bursts when “properly” motivated. Some people even respond to having all of their choices riven away by clutching tighter to the tattered fragments of dignity which remain.

In the medium-term, though, this choice kills both innovation and initiative. On a manufacturing line the manager might not care; after all he can always hire some more inexperienced help and train them to push buttons. In any skilled trade or knowledge-based work environment, though, the death of innovation represents the beginning of the end. When the teams stop innovating they stop thinking; when they stop thinking the environment stops growing. The price for this is not paid in the now, but in the long term as things slowly fall apart.

In the long-term, an environment based on fear and stress rots. In IT this rot takes on three outward manifestations: structural instability, operational failure, and an inability to sustain change. It's easy to miss these signs, even when we look for them. We have a tendency to believe in “one step forward, two steps back” represents progress. Even the most cynical of us see the steps forward as a sign of possible progress rather than the palliatives offered to a dying patient.

Despite this, though, the trend towards fear continues in management styles and literature. People see it as a practical way to wrest control back from IT and to secure their places in the increasingly competitive corporate hierarchies. We can expect it to get worse as work and health risk equal to that which the working class has suffered from for years enters into the middle and upper classes.

Practically I am not sure what we should do about it, or if there is anything we can do about it. As project managers and managers we have to adapt to our environments. It's the only way we can keep our own jobs and have any chance to initiate positive changes. At the same time, we know from experience that our teams do not work well over longer projects when driven by the whip. If we want to get maximal performance out of them, they need to feel secure in taking risks and in innovating though the complexities besetting even a simple roll-out.

I'll spend some time pondering this and see what I can come up with. The “old” methods we developed in the infancy of project management hardly seem appropriate any more. The older methods, derived from the disciplines of leadership we've developed over the course of civilization, probably have better answers.

20 comments
ronnie
ronnie

Just came across your posting... and thought this line was key: "If we want to get maximal performance out of them, they need to feel secure in taking risks and in innovating though the complexities besetting even a simple roll-out." I am the founder of ACQYR, and last year we did a survey about workplace stress. Almost 4 out of every 5 participants felt they did not have the training or skills to deal with workplace stress (IT and other sectors). This 'atmosphere of fear' management style has to be replaced as the long-term results end up costing millions to corporations through stress-related illnesses and leave. Ronnie Nijmeh Author of Stress Busters Sign-up for a free stress course.

PeterChaves
PeterChaves

From the second paragraph, the use of the verb "crouched" in the phrase "Although crouched in scientific terms..." is incorrect. The correct word is "couched". Assuming this was not a typo and that you have used this word before in the same context, did it occur to you to question the spelling? When you heard it used for the first time, did you look up the definition or just assume that the speaker was using the correct word for the meaning that s/he wanted to convey? Let's raise the bar on correct communication.

khimchoon
khimchoon

If all of us operate by fear in our working environment, it is pointless to work. Those managers who champion such idea are precisely - and I say with confidence - those who are insecure and lacking confidence. They are in fact a liability rather than an asset to the company! As a member of the management staff, I always ensure the ingredients must be calibrated correctly to ensure all employees can function properly. First is Ecosystem. It is about setting up a framework of rules, guidelines, vision and mission that governs employees' conduct and areas that they can contribute effectively. I constantly review and revised it so that all employees feel empowered to work according to their strength to meet the company's objectives corporately as well as control measures in place that prevent the system from developing into a chaos. Secondly, it is leadership. Most people equate leadership to being domineering. That's absolute misconception and shame for those managers who practise it. Good managers are those that know how to lead!!! It's all about helping all employees to move or stay on the right direction and tracks. If the empoyees fail to see it, managers are obliged to provide pointers. Managers have no stupid excuse if they fail to do so. I never allow that to happen in my company. Leaders should also make an effort to get to know their subordinates well enough and at the same time setting up a system of accountability so that whoever is assigned a task or project is knowledegable in his area of roles and responsiilities. Lastly, it is about motivation. It's similar to second point I mention earlier. When all the employees are motivated and filled with a sense of purpose, creativity, etc will come naturally to them. In other words, they would want to give their best!!!! Managers who operate by fear are selfish for simple reason that they want to hijack all rewards and recognition from their employees!! That's their motive. In short, when the organisation's ecosystem is calibrated correctly, the leaders will bring the best out of their staffs and the employees will naturally give their best in whatever they do. The principle is simple and sound, but it requires a wise manager to execute them. Not managers all are wise; therefore, there are such an overwhelming bad managers around which are detestable.

shardeth-15902278
shardeth-15902278

Good managers know how to lead, and enable. The best manager is one who serves those he manages - makes sure they have the resources they need to do their jobs safely, comfortably and effectively. When you do this you earnt he respect- and love - of those you manage. People who love you are the ones who will go above and beyond for you. (actually, you did sort of cover this, but I though it was worth some additional emphasis).

Jaqui
Jaqui

Asyou pointed out, fear isn't a good long term poductivity tool. pressure your people for excellent results by rewarding the best performer publicly. This is not a project team level tool though, it's department level and higher. reward the most productive TEAM, with extra for the best team members. This promotes competition between the teams, without breaking the team spirit at all. and the stress of trying to be the best is the stress part of it, competeing is stressfull in and of itself. the extra bonus for the most productive member(s) of each team is a minor bonus done from the Project Manager's reveiws of individual performance. If the PM uses team building criteria for this, and the team members know that is the case, then they will actively "compete" to be the most team oriented member of the team :D

shardeth-15902278
shardeth-15902278

I have seen this overused. The end result was: 1.Teams would horde rather than share innovative ideas they came up with to give them the competetive edge. 2. Teams would focus on winning the prize and would start resrting to tatcis which met the metric, but not the true, desired goal. Keep competition between teams light-hearted and friendly.

stress junkie
stress junkie

I often wonder if belligerent managers really have business interests in mind when they exercise their management style. I believe that most of these people are just a--hokes. If these managers are graduates of collegiate level business management education then they should be aware of the productivity experiments conducted by Western Electric in the 1920s and 1930s. These experiments are famous. I would be surprised if anyone could earn a Bachelor's Degree in business management from any decent educational institution without being exposed to these studies and their results. Basically the experiments selected a group of manufacturing employees. These employees were subjected to varying work conditions from changing the ambient light level to changing the style of management. Every time a change was made the productivity of the test group increased. Finally the original test conditions were restored and the workers' productivity increased again. The conclusion was that the workers felt that management was paying more attention to them and their work, and they felt that they were doing something important. That motivated the people. Each time a test condition changed the test subjects recognized the relationship between the change in the test condition and the impact on the results of the test. Note that my interpretation of the test and its significance is the result of having discussed this experiment in college classes as well as independent reading. The test is explained briefly here. http://www.bellsystemmemorial.com/westernelectric_history.html Look for the section heading "The Hawthorne Experiments (Sidebar #2)". In any case this study suggests that if you treat employees in a positive manner and make them feel that their work is important then they will perform their best. The only stress would be from the employees desire to perform well; not from any fear of losing their job or of having a bad performance review. My comment deliberately draws a distinction between good stress and bad stress. The good stress is self imposed on oneself as a result of creating a personal goal. The bad stress is imposed from an external source and only creates fear and degrades personal dignity. I'm pretty sure that most managers know about this. Most of them are just cruel a--holes that enjoy making other people miserable.

darinhamer
darinhamer

I think you are right about most of this, but you state that "if you treat employees in a positive manner and make them feel that their work is important then they will perform their best." My experience has been that if you are trying to "make them feel" something, it is going to backfire on you eventually. Instead of trying to make them feel like they are appreciated, really appreciate them. Don't make them feel important, give them something valuable to do and then appreciate it. You can't really be responsible for how the employees feel, because some of them will never feel special no matter what you do. Others will respond to your genuine appreciation by doing their best. But sometimes trying to "make them feel" a certain way comes off as insincere, and they feel like, well, like their bosses are manipulating them. Maybe this is splitting hairs, but I thought I would throw it out there for some thought.

Tainanchris
Tainanchris

That is exactly right - managers should be setting goals and targets for their staff based on the business needs. Then, the employees either feel accomplishment or failure based on how they have met those challenges. True, managers do need to be motivators to some degree, but their role as "motivational speaker" is really much further down their list of key responsibilities. Being a good communicator, though, is farther up the list I think. In fact, managers who do the reverse - namely cheering people at the office or trying to make people feel good - could also be doing some damage to the business if they are using feel good motivation to replace well-prepared and thought-out goals and performance measurements. Good comments.

stress junkie
stress junkie

I agree with your comments. :D I was mainly trying to make the point that management by abuse is not necessary and may be counter productive. Given that, then many people in management are exactly the wrong people for that job.

darinhamer
darinhamer

I couldn't agree with you more. Managing by fear does not foster loyalty to the manager or the company. People will escape that bad situation as soon as they can, and all you're left with are people who either have no skill and can't find another job or who have been so dehumanized that they aren't much good to you anyway. I completely agree with your comments on that. The only reason I called out the "make them feel" comment is because it is a phrase I have heard around my place of work quite frequently. One day it dawned on me, we spend a lot of time trying to make people feel good and appreciated, and yet so many people don't feel good and appreciated. Perhaps it is because they sense that management's activities are empty gestures to make people feel good and appreciated, rather than gestures that stem from true appreciation. People will eventually figure out if you are not sincere and if you are trying to manipulate their emotions in order to get them to produce more. The result will be the same. People will feel dehumanized and be looking to get out at the first chance. Instead, understand the true value of people and treat them with dignity, as you have said in your posts stress junkie, and people will by-and-large want to stay and be productive. You won't have to force them. So, yes, I think we both agree on this. :-)

jhorton
jhorton

Truer words have rarely been said. It would be interesting to have a scientific study done to discover why many managers are borderline sociopaths......

jhorton
jhorton

Darin, very well said. Although once again it seems like hair-splitting, the phrase "make them feel" indicates that manager in question views employees more like lab rats than co-workers. Having just recently escaped from a 10 year nightmare with the master of management-by-fear-and-intimidation, I can offer a couple of insights: 1) Those who manage by fear are either managed by fear themselves and are only passing the heat along or are natural born buttheads (my old boss was the latter). The NBB category is far more prevalent than anyone dares to guess, simply because power attracts them and they don't particularly care if they are immoral, unethical or even on the shady side of legal to attain and maintain it. I wish I could say that NBB's eventually get their comeuppance, but it just ain't so...... 2) If, as a manager, you want to inculcate as much "good stress" as possible in your employees, learn to value them as a person with all of their strengths and weaknesses. Play to the strength and help bolster the weakness. I would also offer that if you don't believe in the mission of your particular corner of the world, neither will your employees. If that is the case, then welcome to the toxic attitude zone..... Cheers, Jerry

kelly
kelly

I've been an IT manager for a number of years. I'm between jobs at the moment, as a result of a 'strategic reduction in force', but I'm confident (hopeful?) thst this is a temporary situation. As I look back on the teams I've managed in the past, I remember that the times when my people were most satisfued and productive were those when I communicated clearly to each employee the goals of the team and for each one of them. Graphs and charts on the wall showing metrics and actual data, as well as weekly meetings where we all dicussed pitfalls and setbacks and progress and accomplishments were the standard. Long term results of this for me were lists of accomplishments on my resume. But even better may be the fond memories and my determination to repeat these procedures when I get another chance. Feedback would be appreciated.

w2ktechman
w2ktechman

situation. I was the team lead for local deskside at the corporate office of a large company. During this time, our contract was for SW support only, I had scheduled weekly meetings and left my door open (so to speak, as it was a cubicle) and everyone knew that they could come to me. There were several times that I had to fire someone, and once I had to write someone up, and at times I had to downsize as well. But communication with the staff is a key thing. I always felt bad about letting people go, and I did explain the reason, both to the person, and later to the staff. For the most part, it was a good team, but every week we had new rules to follow, so often they were ignored, which led to more issues. When we also took over the HW portion, everything was great, we no longer needed to battle with the current HW contractors to try to work together to get things done. But then there was soo much to do, our weekly meetings became bi-weekly, our Friday breakfast (we all took turns bringing in the breakfast on Fridays) fell apart, and nobody would eat together. The rules were harshened and each person (instead of helping each other) were set to compete against each other constantly to keep their jobs. This is a nightmare scenario to try to manage. We had rules to follow, and processes that changed often, AND the fear that if we did anything wrong or didnt close enough calls in a given week, that we would be terminated -- myself included. Our team always put out extra effort to give great customer service, but that slipped during this time as well. So, basically, even if managers want to manage a certain way, they still get dictated what needs to be done and how, and it depends on those processes whether a manager is successful or not.

deback2u
deback2u

In my experience I wait for the fear to subside and usually the person who initiates the fear is gone or worthless.

Bork Blatt
Bork Blatt

Good article. I think managers whose only style is management by fear are fearful themselves. They shout and intimidate, to stifle intelligent discussion, for fear that their own ignorance or incompetence will be revealed. They may also be incapable of motivating staff to do something, so to make up for this lack they simply shout people into doing it their way. In the long term one of two patterns seem to emerge. One is the manager who shouts, screams, and threatens all the time, but doesn't follow through on any threats. Eventually the staff figure out that he is all hot air, and they fake compliance to get him to go away, then do their own thing anyway. Two is the erratic manager who fires / disciplines people unpredictably, and often unfairly. Usually this manager's team becomes as erratic and unpredictable as they are, sometimes performing, other times not performing, and I think this is the highest stress environment because of its complete unpredictability. Mistakes are much more likely. I think at best either environment is damned unpleasant, but at worst, can be life-sapping, motivation-draining, and excellence destroying. My advice to managers who rely on fear: Figure out where your insecurities and incompetencies lie, and work on them until you have the confidence to lead willing followers, rather than drive slaves.

Tainanchris
Tainanchris

Your comments on the medium- and long-term results of a "manage by fear" approach are very true. Certainly, a manager has many challenges they are responsible for overcoming; perhaps the most difficult challenge to overcome yet also the one they have the most control over is how to ensure indifference does not take root in the employees. Managing by fear is a sure way to insure that over the long-run, many thoughtful and motivated employees begin to lose interest in the company, their jobs and their colleagues both above and below them. You also touch upon the real roots of power, whether in management or anywhere for that matter. And it should be remembered that power is simply the ability to get another person or persons to do something that you want them to do, and they would not have been so inclined to do on their own. Most political theorists would agree that there are only three real roots of power ? power from creating an expectation of personal benefit, power from creating respect or admiration, or power from the creation of fear. The free market system basically has the first form of power creation covered by establishing a system of financial rewards for employees, and since the second source of power gained by winning the respect or admiration of employees is so difficult for most managers to maintain, often they directly resort to the final method, namely fear. Quite correctly, though, you have pointed to the reality that in organizations, it is far more important to add value by employing the first two sources of power instead of - just the opposite - reducing an organization's value by making some within the organization succeed only because the system of fear creation ensures that other afraid members on their team lose.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

I lived through the fear-based approach. I saw the effect it had long-term. Productivity went through the floor, key people left projects at CRITICAL times, often out of spite. Sabatage was everywhere and more work was being done to show that you were working than actuall work on work. Anyone with any sort of offer anywhere took it, and the company was left with a bunch of outsourcing people with nobody left to train them. The company wounded itself so severely that it now looks as if they are about to be bought out by someone who used to be a minor competitor. By contrast, I now work for a company that is VERY employee oriented. They take care of us, and we take care of them. NOBODY rushes out at five, the bosses chief admonission is "don't stay too late!" and we are a LEADER in our field.

Beth Blakely
Beth Blakely

This is an interesting concept. Do you have a link to the original article?

Editor's Picks