Stress In – Creativity Out
The Tough Road Ahead
The talking points created for virtually every kick-off meeting for a major project include some variation of phrase that acknowledges (by way of prediction) that the effort will be tough – that many long hours and challenging demands will be made; that extra effort will be required. That’s reasonable to say, and likely true – but laying out a description of ‘the tough road ahead’ quickly becomes nothing more than a fatalistic acceptance of stress unless there is consideration given to what it means to be stressed, and what to do to minimize the onset of physical and mental manifestations of stress: confusion, illness, irritation, frustration, passive-aggression and poor performance.
Every business leader, every consultant engaged, and every employee who is given the responsibility to complete a project on time and on budget is a potential casualty of stress-related complications. Their relationships both at work and at home often become problematic, overwhelming, and uncontrolled. The inability to control one’s work produces an increasing inability to work effectively. Losing control over one’s time and effort produces a loss of time and energy. The energy that one could focus on tasks flows randomly or diminishes to the point of depression.
Individuals carry their problems and issues with them everywhere they go – they carry them in memory and associative thinking and, like a virus, stress spreads quickly through teams. We can perceive this in group think, hear it in hallway gossip; see it in hastily constructed deliverables and missed deadlines. Team members start to project the outcome of their work – the go-live, the aftermath from a stressed point-of view – a view of a workplace full of problems all linked to memories of things gone wrong – poor decisions someone else made, perceived insults; actual incompetence. Natural divisions like east coast versus west coast, onshore versus offshore, night shift versus day shift, client versus consultant, project ‘A’ versus project ‘B’, become like aggravated parties in a vicious divorce. Stress in the workplace slows everything down and replaces cooperation with conflict. Dozens of completely different issues and projects cross over, intersect and interact, creating knots, clusters, and what feels like funnel clouds of anxiety and tension tearing through the landscape of personality.
A successful project has leaders that understand that they can change the landscape, and take on the responsibility to do so. Businesses can win against stress by creating a sanctuary of support where stress becomes less intrusive. It’s not much of a stretch to compare a project to a garden – every element changes from virtually nothing to a thing complete. Whether the garden is good or not depends on quality soil, good space, good light, sufficient sustenance, and the care of a knowledgeable gardener – translation: quality planning, good work environment, good communication, sufficient feedback, and the care of a knowledgeable leader. Without such care there is just a tangle of weeds.
Stress is reduced in a business environment where ideas are welcome, risk taking is rewarded, and the freedom to fail is embedded in the principles and culture. In such an environment, employees will tend to differentiate their problems, prioritize their significance, and leave much of their external problems out of the office. If people are welcome to present new approaches, engage in new thinking, and feel more in control at work, it is easy to see where a person will spend his mental energy. Great leaders and great consultants ensure that people can exert control over the tasks assigned to them and have the competence needed to do so. They solicit feedback and provide encouragement. They spread quality information instead of confusion. They approach each day with good will and good humor.
Freedom from stress opens the mind space. Without the clutter of confusion, anxiety, misapprehension and the contagion of stress, the mind is free to create. Creativity can happen very quickly and unexpectedly, but it must have mind space to happen at all. The less the organization stresses, the more creative it is likely to become. Projects will benefit from having the full attention of its participants. Issues will be explored more deeply and their resolutions will be longer lasting and of higher quality. There will be more energy, more positive outlooks, more smiles and a greater sense of belonging to something with meaning and importance. The organization will be more effective each moment and every individual will have the opportunity and the support to feel worthy.