Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Stress is (mostly) manufactured...

I believe most stress is manufactured vs. inherent in a given situation, at least in terms of our business lives. In my experience the most common source of stress comes from misaligned expectations – or more specifically, delaying or completely ignoring acknowledgment of the misalignment. This skewed outlook could exist between anybody: colleagues, manager & employee, sales rep & customer, and of course into our personal lives as well. Addressing this one issue could dramatically improve the quality of our lives and those around us.

For the most part, it doesn’t even matter why expectations are out of alignment; sometimes this is of our own doing including missed deadlines – either by Murphy’s law or ego-tized schedules, ignoring bad news – unexpected or not, and my favorite is fooling ourselves into believing we can control things we cannot. There are many reasons expectations get out of sync, but this is more the norm and folks need to learn to accept and embrace this fact. I’ve learned to accept mistakes and failure – so long as they are not repeated and everybody learns from the experience. The bottom line is that whatever happens you need to deal with it straight-up. Open, honest and direct is my mantra; if you can manage to be nice, cool, calm and collected then all the better, but the most important thing is to always face reality.

So, what can we do to eliminate more stress from our work life? Here are two common scenarios to consider:

  • If you make a mistake, quickly admit it and take responsibility. You’ll find that hiding it doesn’t change the outcome, except to make it worse by compounding an already unpleasant situation. I find a lot of people think they can make up for the mistake by putting in some extra hours. Sure, on occasion this does work, but if you find yourself working extra hours often, then there’s a bigger problem and trust me – everybody knows it, especially your manager. Reach out and explain your problem and you’ll find most will be understanding and willing to help get you back on track.
  • Don’t assume others know. Planning is not about predicting the future but about being able to react to what it brings. Assumptions are a part of every plan but they only work if others know what they are, otherwise we call these surprises! If budgets, dates, or resources get compressed, think through and state what it means in terms of additional risks, issues, concerns – in terms of quality, dates, deals, pricing, etc. You may not change the outcome, but you will help manage the risk down. Some might think of this as a form of CYA – it’s not, far from it. Managers get paid to manage risk down, and this information allows them to do their job better.

Both of these approaches will eliminate or greatly reduce the stress for you and your team. In the organizations I’m involved with I encourage a full-disclosure environment up and down, so the opportunity for misunderstood risks and issues is minimal and stress is not manufactured!

Listen to your 'gut'

The advantage of a startup is the speed with which decisions can be made, however this is the downside as well. By nature everything is compressed and what takes six months or more in an enterprise organization takes six weeks, six days – or more likely six hours, in a startup. This is an incredible competitive advantage as well as a deadly liability, with the only difference being how well-equipped you and your team are to make lightning-quick decisions.

Good decision making includes a few key factors – keeping a laser-like focus on the most important issues, being honest with yourself – confronting reality at all times, being sure to consider the positive outcomes not just the negative, and noting any and all assumptions. Intentionally missing from this list is data. Innovation is the norm within startups so information is always limited due to lack of money and resources or the simple fact it’s s never been done before.

Equally important, good decisions are about action. Indecision on any front leaves the team or company exposed and under-performing. Left undecided, situations can go from chaos (not good) to thrash (deadly). This is why you hear the axiom “it is better to make a wrong decision than no decision.” I’ve seen too many instances where the timeliness or lack of decision has caused significant and sometimes irreparable harm. At least a bad decision can be course-corrected whereas ‘no decision’ can’t be acted upon never mind changed. The only wrong decision is to not make a decision.

With little or no information and answers needed yesterday, what’s a leader to do? The answer: tap into that internal guidance system – which is really a snapshot of all your experience and intuition rolled into a ‘gut’ feeling. This is not guessing or gambling; it is using your ‘gut’ to bridge the gap between the known and the goal. When these decisions have far-reaching implications, the process is not easy. The key here is to trust yourself and convey your decisions with passion.

Being a leader can be a lonely job sometimes, but it can be the most gratifying as well – just keep your eyes on the horizon and trust yourself to listen to your instincts.