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Management by Coaching

Turn down the pressure cooker

The light touch vs. heavy-handedness

By Kimberly Paterson, CEC

Helping your people stay energized isn't easy these days. Agency people are squeezed in the middle—caught between the needs of their stressed clients and the demands of their often understaffed and inconsistent insurance carriers. The pressure just to keep up is relentless.

Over time, this relentless pressure wears people down. Eventually it takes its toll on performance. The rapid fire pace leads us to react rather than to reflect when we make decisions. We're short tempered with colleagues and clients because we simply don't have time for "small talk." When there isn't much left in our fuel tanks, we tend to feel threatened and hoard what little energy we have. Our limited energy reserves are used for self-protection rather than contributing to the business. We're more apt to be defensive and less able to hear the points of view of others. As the work demands exceed our capacity, we begin to make expedient decisions just to get us through the day.

Pressure is unavoidable but the truth is that much of it is self-generated. If you want to keep people's positive energy levels high, it is important to consider the role you may be playing in raising or lowering others' stress levels. Do any of the following patterns seem familiar to you?

Last-minute syndrome—Whether it's poor planning, insufficient focus, or a shortage of discipline, leaving important work until the 11th hour needlessly ratchets up the stress level of everyone around you. Take Jerry, an agency principal. He's always working on a big account and for some reason his submissions consistently come in at the 11th hour. This puts pressure on his client service rep because she has to tell other producers they're going to have to wait for their renewal quotes. The head of the marketing department needs to put her work aside, contact several carriers and call in favors to get rush quotes. Several of the agency's best markets for this type of account have already been blocked. That increases the chances of losing the deal. This really raises Jerry's blood pressure.

Just when Jerry and his team need their best thinking, they are unlikely to get it. Despite what we may believe about our own abilities to perform well under pressure, science proves the opposite is true. When people are under stress, surges in the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol strongly affect our ability to think. The soaring cortisol levels and an added hard kick of adrenaline can paralyze the mind's critical abilities. Attention fixates on the threat rather than the work at hand; memory, planning, and creativity go out the window. Managing the workflow so that people can plan keeps quality high and prevents routine tasks from becoming time-intensive crises.

Spinning the hamster's wheel—We all know the feeling of running as fast as we can but getting nowhere. Little is more demoralizing than feeling like that hamster on the wheel. That is exactly what managers do when they gloss over what's been accomplished and head straight for the next "hill to climb." Consider Susanne, a highly motivated and successful agency CEO. Since taking over a year ago, she has seen the firm make tremendous strides in winning new business, cutting expenses and upgrading staff capabilities. Susanne's focus, however, is always on the work that remains to be done and never on the progress that's been made.

A multi-year Harvard Business School study that tracked the day-to-day activities, emotions and motivation levels of hundreds of knowledge workers showed that the single most important motivator of performance is progress. On the days when employees felt they were making the most headway in their jobs, or they received support that helped them overcome roadblocks, their emotions were the most positive and their drive to succeed was at its peak. On days when they felt like they were spinning their wheels or encountering obstacles that blocked meaningful accomplishment, their moods and motivations were at their lowest.

It turns out that the key to motivating people is pretty simple and largely within your control. Managers have a powerful influence over the events that facilitate or undermine progress. You can proactively create both the perception and reality of progress. Get people off the hamster wheel by acknowledging progress and helping them connect to what they are accomplishing.

High tolerance for poor results Most of us who run businesses believe we have high standards and low tolerance for people who don't deliver. But stop and think about that for a minute. Is it really true? Odds are if yours is like most businesses, you probably have your share of non-performers. Consider Donna, a commercial lines department manager with a large agency in the Midwest. She has a pretty good group of CSRs overall but one is a real problem.

She's smart, experienced and very capable, but she's lazy. She refuses to learn how to use some of the carriers' online rating systems so her colleagues end up doing some of her submissions. She's typically behind on her renewals due to her long lunch hours and a heavy flow of personal phone calls. Since bonuses are based on team goals, her teammates usually do some of her renewals. Donna knows the employee is a problem but dealing with it will likely mean having to hire someone new. Donna simply doesn't have time for that.

If we're honest, we probably all tolerate a lot more poor performance than we realize. Poor performers turn up the pressure on your best performers. While there is nothing new about some workers doing more than their fair share, in today's high pressure environment you run the risk of burning out the people you depend on most. Get rid of the poor performers.

The no-action meeting—I'm sure you've been to this meeting. You don't know why you've been invited. You spend hours in discussion. You talk about problems and kick around solutions. Ten days later you find yourself with the same group of people discussing the same subject. There's plenty of conversation but not much resolution or action.

Meetings are often viewed as a waste of time. When people are under pressure and are compelled to attend meetings that they think are pointless, you make them feel even more stressed. Before you schedule a meeting, recognize the enormous cost of pulling yourself and your team away from their regular workflow. Some issues can be resolved more quickly with a quick face-to-face conversation or phone call. If a meeting must be had, be sure to ask yourself who really needs to be there. Be ruthless, and imagine that you are guarding your colleagues' time as preciously as you guard your own. Make every meeting count. Be sure attendees know what you expect to accomplish. At the end of the meeting, summarize what's been agreed to, what the next step is and who will do it and by when.

All business—With the pressure agencies are under, it's easy for managers to self-sabotage by falling into the trap of being all business and forgetting how important the right atmosphere is in compelling people to be their best. It turns out that the most effective leaders are those who set high standards and demand excellence but, through their personal behavior, set a relaxed tone within their companies. Believe it or not, top-performing managers elicit laughter from their subordinates three times as often, on average, as do mid-performing managers.

There is a set of neurons in the brain whose only job is to detect other people's smiles and laughter, prompting smiles and laughter in return. A boss who is self-controlled and humorless will rarely engage those neurons in his team members, but a boss who laughs and sets an easygoing tone puts those neurons to work, triggering spontaneous laughter and knitting the team together in the process.

You don't have to be Tina Fey to keep the atmosphere light. Daniel is a good example. By nature, he's a serious man. While he is not a funny person, he's warm, sincere and caring. He makes sure to show this side of his personality. He's comfortable in his own skin and good at making the people around him feel relaxed. As a result, there's plenty of good-natured teasing and laughter whenever his people are together.

A bonded group is one that performs well. The more pressure there is in the workplace, the more important that bond is. When people feel personal connections to those they work with, there is a synergy and ability to pull together to get the job done.

When you think about pressure, remember the Yerkes-Dodson law named after two pioneering physiologists. This law looks like an upside-down letter U on a piece of graph paper. As stress increases (the x axis), so does productivity (the y axis). The more stressed you are, the better your output until you get to the top of the curve, where the upside-down U is poised to start down again. From there it's a rapid downhill slide to poor productivity. Keeping the stress level where it works for us is the key.


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