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.