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What to do when your team is showing signs of stress.

What to do when your team is showing signs of stress.

Noticing Stress is Job # 1 for Team Leaders

One of the most important things I’ve learned as founder of a lean startup is how to manage stress when I notice it in my team. Why do I care? Because there’s a fine line between good stress and bad stress that has a direct impact on productivity. I’ve learned (the hard way) that the art of great leadershipis about thoughtfully managing the tension between stability and change. Too much stability and people can slack off and get stagnant. Too much change and they spin into chaos. Both create a loss of precious productivity and can eventually even cause the loss of a much valued employee. Hopefully I can prevent that if you read this.

What surprises most team leaders is that people actually need to feel a little tension about having to stretch their skills or their intellect with tough challenges in order to feel motivated. We call this good stress because it keeps the mind alert and sharp. In fact, when someone starts to feel bored or stagnant because they are no longer learning, it won’t be long and they will long for a leader or role that challenges them more.

But bad stress is different and can cause a serious reduction in productivity that can spin out of control if not caught soon enough. This happens when there is too much change, too many priorities that feel demanding all at once, or when focus is affected from excessive multi-tasking. As leaders, we have to learn to watch for and listen for bad stress before it multiplies. Why? Because we have lost great talent by ignoring the seriousness of it. I’ve learned my lesson, so I am very careful to pay attention and take action swiftly.

What are the clues of bad stress?

If you have built trust with your team, you’re lucky, because your team will tell you when you’ve thrown too much at them. If not, you have to develop an eagle eye and watch for the signs.

Sign # 1: People are lethargic in team meetings. They look tired, burned out and don’t want to take on new tasks or projects.

Sign # 2: They begin splitting hairs or complicating things in order to delay projects that feel overwhelming.

Sign # 3: They are not getting much done and deadlines are slipping by.

Sign # 4: They seem confused about priorities and use language like “overwhelmed, tired, burned-out, frustrated”.

Sign # 5: It feels like you are pulling teeth to get someone to volunteer to head up a new exciting task or project. No one is as excited as you are.

And if it really gets bad….

Sign # 6: People start showing signs of depression. Insomnia. Inability to focus. Apathy about what is normally exciting. Feelings of low self-esteem or self-deprecation.

What to do about it. Fast.

When I am sensing any of these signs, I pause and go look at their activity boards to see what is going on in their world. We track everything on project management boards using Trello, so I can find clues there. Do they have too many tasks in their current sprint list? Do they have a large and cumbersome project that feels overwhelming and need to break it into smaller chunks that are more manageable in the current week? Do they need to take a break from a difficult task and knock out a few smaller, easier ones so they get a sense of accomplishment? Do they need better clarity from me regarding priorities? Do they need support from external resources that we can pay for? Do they lack specific skills that are better off contracted out? Do I need to postpone a deadline on a key project to give them some space? Do I need to schedule a call to clarify what’s most important and help them process what they are feeling for some emotional release? Can I help them reframe their thinking? Do I need to express some appreciation for their hard work? Do I need to simply let them blow off some steam and process? Do I need to offer some encouragement? Pay for some training or a conference that motivates them? Simply say thank you?

A leader that cares.

This is one of the most important responsibilities of a leader who cares about the team culture and wants it to be great. If we neglect it, WE are the ones who lose. When productivity drops because we are not doing our job as leader, the result comes back to haunt us in the long run anyway. I, for one, don’t ever want to lose great people because I am not doing the most important job I have — being a good coach to my own team.

The holidays add extra feelings of stress to family life, so it’s an important time of year. I like to make sure everyone gets a break and downtime so we close for most of the days before and after the holiday period. Families are the most important part of life and this is the time to show your team you really care about them by honoring that personal time we all need. It feeds the heart and keeps people in balance so they can start the year fresh!

The holidays are a great time to be alert to the spirit and magic of the season. It just might be one of the most important gifts we have to offer to those closest to us every day — those who work tirelessly beside us all year.

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