In a world of tight deadlines, it’s no wonder that some of your stress might seep out and affect your colleagues. But — because they’re under pressures of their own — you risk perpetuating a vicious circle, where you mirror and magnify each other’s frenzy.
You can’t control their behavior, but you can take charge of your own. There are obvious ways to tamp down the stress you inflict on others, such as refraining from yelling or making sarcastic comments. But those are only the most visible ways one risks alienating one’s coworkers; to truly stop the office pathology, you have to look deeper. Here are three subtle but powerful strategies to ratchet down the pressure and ensure you’re not subjecting your colleagues to undue stress and frustration.
First, stop being vague. If someone doesn’t know the full context of a situation, vague messages — which might be quite harmless — are often read like a Rorschach test, with fears and interpretations piled on. If you send a late-night email to a coworker that says, “We need to talk,” without further explanation, that can trigger an unhelpful cascade: Is there a problem? What did I do? Is she going to reprimand me?
I received a text message from a colleague this morning with exactly that framing. “Dorie,” it read. “Are you available today to talk via phone? Let me know when you are available…” Those ellipses seemed downright ominous. What did she need from me, so urgently? To share podcast referrals, it turned out.
Some people leave vague messages because they’re in a rush — tapping out a quick text or leaving a voicemail en route to the airport — and don’t realize the impact they have. Other people deliberately leverage vague messages as a power play, knowing they’ll make others wonder and worry. Either way, it inflicts an inexcusable psychic toll. If you want to be a better colleague, stop doing it.
Second, triage your responses. We all know email can be overwhelming — the average professional sends or receives 122 messages per day, according to one study — and in order to make progress on important projects, I’ll often go days without responding to emails. Usually, this isn’t a problem; most missives are informational and non-urgent. But there’s one glaring exception: messages that contain specific, time-sensitive inquiries. Can you come to the meeting Friday at 4pm? Do you approve the new draft of the presentation for tomorrow? Should we extend the job offer to Anika or Marco?
When you delay responding to these specific, targeted messages, it’s not you being “focused on what’s most important” (if we’re spinning it nicely) or even “slightly distracted.” It’s being obstructionist, which creates negative ripple effects throughout the organization. Even if you’re heads down and have sworn off email for days or weeks to accomplish a priority mission, spend at least 15 minutes a day tagging the most important, time-sensitive messages that have come in, so that you can respond appropriately. That marks you as a team player and makes everyone’s life easier — including your own, since you’ll earn the gratitude of your colleagues and they won’t keep pinging you relentlessly to badger you for the answers they need.
Finally, stop watching the kettle boil. Just as it’s damaging to neglect communication, as above, and let your colleagues languish without your necessary input, it’s just as bad to monitor them relentlessly. If you’re a perfectionist, or feel a keen sense of responsibility about a given project, you might feel tempted to watch their every move to ensure they’re performing, on time and on budget. That’s a laudable impulse, but the net result is that your colleagues will feel hounded, mistrusted, and micromanaged. In fact, scrutinizing them too closely is likely to make them perform worse, as demonstrated via research into the phenomenon of “choking under pressure.”
Monitor your own tendencies, instead. Recognize that responsible professionals thrive when they’re given autonomy, and work with them to establish a timeline and agreed-upon metrics of progress. That way, you can check in at appropriate intervals and they won’t feel blindsided. That takes the pressure off and allows them to do their best work.
When we’re stressed out, that feeling often spreads. It’s inevitable in a fast-paced workplace that some stress will be shared. But in order to create a better work environment, we need to take steps to contain this contagion as much as possible. By limiting vague messages, responding to specific requests in a timely fashion, and giving your colleagues a bit more leeway, you can do your part to stop the contagion of workplace stress — because we each already have enough of our own.
By Dorie Clark