How Middle Managers Create Stress

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The ways in which managers create this stress are endless, but here are some of the most common ways. Being Inadequately Trained. The underlying reason why middle managers are stress-carriers is that they are not trained to be effective managers. Even though management training and development is universally agreed to be essential, more than 80% of those managing in today’s organizations have received no more than 5 days management training. It is tempting to believe that this statistic is biased because of the shortcomings of older managers, but this is not the case. The majority of younger managers have received no more. Little wonder that the majority of managers don’t know how to manage effectively. The result is that the manager behaves in ways which are inherently flawed and therefore highly likely to cause stress levels to rise in those affected by their actions.

Implementing Operational Plans. The stress-carrying manager will: not be familiar with the corporate level strategies and objectives; implement local, operational plans without regard for the higher level objectives; not involve key individuals and teams in the planning process; not balance risks against desired outcomes; not build in an appropriate degree of flexibility into the plans; not ensure that individuals and teams are provided with the necessary training and resources; not monitor and adjust the plan on a regular basis. Will the plans be successful? No. Will stress levels rise? Yes.

Encouraging Innovation. Good managers encourage creativity and innovation, by: promoting a culture of continuous improvement; motivating individuals and teams to identify improvements to existing processes; responding positively to ideas from teams and individuals; discussing ways in which improvements or new methods could be implemented; promoting agreed changes to senior management; make sure that the originators of the changes are given recognition. Poor managers don’t do these things. As a result, dissatisfaction and resentment is fostered, and individuals and teams feel worthless. Will stress levels rise? Yes.

Managing Health and Safety Conditions. A major cause of workplace stress is the condition of the workplace in which people work. This can include issues such as temperature, safety levels, personal space, air quality, cleanliness, access to emergency exits, and so on. The conscientious manager, aware of the high priority that health and safety should be given, ensures that: they are aware of their personal responsibilities regarding health and safety in their areas of responsibility; the organization’s health and safety policy is communicated clearly to all relevant employees; each individual is aware of and trained to carry out their individual health and safety responsibilities; systems are in place for identifying, reporting, and removing hazards; sufficient resources are allocated to the management of health and safety; an effective monitoring and review process is in place.

When the manager does not take health and safety seriously, conditions deteriorate and become dangerous, the health of the employees will be damaged, and accidents occur. Stress levels will rise and, perversely, the risk of illness and accidents will rise in proportion, as individuals become less confident, more distracted, and potentially ill, due to the negative impact of the stress.

Managing Operational Processes. The core activity for middle managers is to manage the operational processes, the business processes. The stress-carrying manager does this ineffectively by: not adjusting the processes so that they deliver the desired outcomes; not ensuring that necessary resources are allocated to each part of the process; not providing sufficient information to individuals and teams carrying out the activities; not defining responsibilities; not implementing a monitoring and control system; not taking appropriate corrective action when the process is failing. For the teams and individuals carrying out the operational activity, the result is lack of information, unclear objectives, unclear roles and responsibilities, conflict and frustration. As a direct result of these effects, stress levels will rise.

Developing Positive Working relationships. Effective managers will work hard and continuously to develop and maintain positive, productive relationships with their colleagues and with other stakeholders. This requires the manager to: identify colleagues and other stakeholders such as internal and external suppliers and customers; establish positive working relationships with relevant people; respect the knowledge, skills, roles, and responsibilities of other people; provide colleagues and stakeholders with the information that they need; consult colleagues and stakeholders to learn of their priorities and needs; behave ethically towards colleagues and stakeholders; monitor and review the condition of these relationships. Do stress-carrying managers behave in this way? No. Will their behavior cause damage to these relationships? Yes.

Managing Change. The amount and the pace of change is often blamed for the increase in negative stress levels in the workplace. This perception clouds the real issue, that of managers not being able to implement or respond to changes, effectively. Change can be managed in a way that minimizes disruption, avoids conflict, reduces resistance, and leads to the change being welcomed, at least by most. There are, of course, some radical changes which cause distress to some individuals, such as when redundancies are necessary.

Such changes and the impact they have are outside the control of the middle manager. However, the manager should be applying an approach to change that will, in most other circumstances, make change a relatively stress-free experience. This approach entails: assessing the impact of the proposed change and preparing for that impact; informing all individuals and teams of impending changes and the reasons for them; making clear the objectives of the change; ensuring that changes made at the local level take into account local circumstances, whenever possible; making certain that individuals are clear about their roles and responsibilities in respect of the change; providing support to people as they go through the change process; keep people informed about the progress being made; encouraging discussion and debate about potential and current changes. Managers who don’t adopt this approach will find that change is a battlefield, there will be resistance and conflict, or at best there will be an unenthusiastic response to the change. The objectives of the change will not be achieved. In the process stress levels will have risen and will be difficult to lower.

Managing Personal Professional Development. Effective managers embrace the concept of continuous personal and professional development and practice it consistently and enthusiastically. They do this by: regularly forecasting the skills, knowledge, qualifications, they will need to continue to manage effectively and to progress in their careers; identifying ways to gain further knowledge, skills, qualifications; preparing and executing personal and professional development action plans; obtaining regular feedback on their performance from others; taking pride in their achievements in this area.

Ineffective managers do none of these, or, at best, pay lip-service to organizational requirements by undertaking minimum or inappropriate development activity. They continue to be lacking in knowledge, unskilled in key areas of management, unaware of current best practices, and therefore continue to manage ineffectively. As a result, others continue to suffer from the stress caused by the manager’s actions.

There is no doubt that most workplace stress is caused by the managers. Managers are there, literally, to manage. Managers are given the responsibility of ensuring that the workplace around them is safe, healthy, organized, resourced, and achieving the set objectives. In support of this, the manager must maintain and continuously improve the levels of motivation, morale, quality standards, performance, and capabilities of individuals and teams. Managers who are not capable of managing in this way will cause problems, confusion, dissent, disagreement, conflict, disappointment, frustration, anger, higher levels of sickness absence and staff turnover.

This in turn means that they will continue to generate workplace stress, and the individuals and teams that they manage will continue to suffer from the negative effects of that stress. The message is clear. To reduce workplace negative stress levels, it is necessary to have managers in place who are trained in management and who manage thoughtfully and competently. Yes, there will be times when increased stress is inevitable, but these periods should only be generated by the peaks and troughs of the activity of the organization, not by the actions of an individual manager. Until managers know how to manage effectively, stress management will remain high on the agenda. Individuals will spend more and more effort and energy on coping mechanisms. The cost to the organization will be higher levels of turnover and absence, and the cost of poor performance. The real problem, the cause of the stress, will remain.

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