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Dealing with Stress in the Face of Change

by Dr. Marilyn Manning

The best leaders follow tried-and-true methods to help relieve anxiety. Change is inevitable. Whether you’re at the top or the bottom of an organization, one thing you can count on in the future is that there will be change. Another thing you can count on is that these changes—whatever they turn out to be—will cause stress to you and your employees, since stress is a normal human response to change. The past year has seen unprecedented changes in the semiconductor equipment industry—we went from a year of more than 80 percent growth and unbridled optimism to a year of 40 percent decline, massive layoffs and mergers, and general unease about the future of whole segments of the industry. The events of September 11 induced their own anxiety, leaving many people with heightened feelings of stress.

However, all these changes showed that the established and accepted methods for mitigating stress are still effective. The wake-up call from the past year showed that managers who are able to accept change today and plan for change in the future are those who followed a few simple guidelines. These are their keys:

Give Frequent Feedback and Updates

For companies and employees who face major changes—such as layoffs—ongoing communication is key. One of the causes of stress in layoffs or terminations is that employees may not be fully informed. In trying to be sensitive to potential layoffs and other negative situations, managers may attempt to protect employees from the truth. However, lack of information leads to uncertainty and anxiety, often seen in rumors, gossip and general loss of productivity. A much better approach is to keep staff informed about anticipated changes in an educational way. There’s a fine line, however, between keeping them “in the loop” and sending them into panic with too much information, and wise managers know how to strike that balance. This lesson—while patently obvious—is one that should be applied all year, even when there seems to be little information to communicate. The message—that the communication lines are always open—is one that is positive and should be reinforced throughout the year.

Many managers routinely give appraisals once a year, but regular, ongoing feedback will remind employees of performance expectations as well as giving them company updates. Follow Ken Blanchard’s advice in The One Minute Manager: When you see an employee doing something wrong, give a “one­minute reprimand,” and if you see something positive, give praise on the spot. If you are in constant communication with employees, there should be few surprises, and employees will be able to feel more in control of their own futures.

Use Measured Assignments for Feedback

We all need feedback. It’s often the lack of feedback and information that adds to stress levels. Most of us know or sense when information is being withheld. Most would rather hear the “news,” be it good or bad, directly from the source or their supervisor rather than through the grapevine.

If you are giving feedback, use the following process. Clearly tell employees what changes in behavior or direction you would like to see. You must be precise about what they need to accomplish or change, and you must include specific measurable results. You should always clarify your expectations and theirs.

Remember that communication can produce stress when assumptions are not checked out, when emotions are running high, and when we aren’t following up dialog with something in writing. Write an agreement, set a date by which the em­ployee must meet the goals and time-frames described in the assignment, and have him or her sign it. For example you can say, “You must improve your accuracy to 98 percent by June 30. We will look at your progress on the first of every month to assess progress and resolve any problems during this time period. Let’s get together in my office at 9:00 a.m. on those days to discuss your performance, and we’ll do a wrap-up meeting on June 30 for a final assessment.”

Transition Stages for Major Changes

Managers must recognize the transition stages for all major changes, including layoffs. Change, especially imposed change, causes stress. There is a typical progression that you and the employee will go through in accepting reorganizations, terminations, layoffs or any other major change.

Denial. First, you may deny that the action or change is necessary. Managers often deny that the situation is critical. The employee also may deny the situation, thinking, “They won’t let me go, I’ve been here too long.” While you may not be able to guide employees to a level of acceptance, it is especially important for you to accept the situation. You have to see how these actions are for the overall good of the organization and its success or survival, and your leadership will be seen and reflected by others.

Resistance. People understand negative situations, but often can’t take action. They can become immobilized. As the parties recognize the problem, they may first blame each other for the situation. The manager thinks, “If she only completed more projects, she wouldn’t be in this situation.” The employee believes: “It’s the manager’s fault that I didn’t get adequate training so that I could be successful in my job. I should have been protected.”

Self-blame. Next, most people go through self-blame. The manager may think, “It’s my fault. I should have offered more help.” The employee might say, “I should have put in more hours” or “I should have transferred to another project.” As a manager, you have to monitor your own reactions to change and stress. If you are in a state of denial or resistance, you will not be an effective coach or leader. Do your homework, understand the strategies and the big picture, and move through your negative emotions quickly.

Exploration and Acceptance. The next stage of transitioning through change and reducing stress is acceptance and exploring your options. The manager thinks, “I hate to do it, but I have to let them go. These are the steps I’m going to have to take.” The employee may say, “I now understand why it didn’t work out and I know what I can do to succeed and protect my job next time” or “I know what training I need in order to reposition myself.” A manager’s role at this stage is to guide employees to look at options, to provide them with any available resources, and to encourage them to make needed changes.

Don’t Feel Guilty

Some people actually feel a sense of relief once they hear the news. They have been aware that the situation is critical, and they have not been happy. Closure to this stressful time is usually welcomed. Also, keep in mind that a large number of those who are terminated are much more successful at another company or in another occupation. According to the U.S. Department of Labor statistics, of people who are laid off and re-employed, 52 percent actually make more money on their new jobs. Be aware that with layoffs, the remaining staff can experience guilt: “Why them and not me?” You’ll need to plan some team rebuilding processes.

For Serious Problems

If the situation is extreme, consider calling in a mediator. As a neutral party, a mediator or consultant can ask leading questions and coach employees to exit gracefully and quickly, and coach the survivors to cope with the losses and inevitable increased workloads. It may be one of the best investments you make. Win-win exiting is possible. Acting quickly and with expert help can restore your team and organization back to high productivity and improved morale.

The most successful managers understand that their core job is to enable employees to succeed. If a manager is practicing ongoing communication, setting realistic but challenging expectations, helping employees to learn and grow, then they will be better prepared to lead. If a manager can help employees to understand that change is inevitable, they can integrate that preparation for change into everyday operations. Learning to become comfortable with being uncomfortable about constant change is a skill necessary for leadership success today.