Early in my career, without quite knowing what it was but certainly how it felt, I stressed out frequently. When I would go to bed, it would be hard to fall asleep, my mind racing through frustrations of the day and often I would get up at 1 or 2 in the morning, have a major peanut butter sandwich, two or three cigarettes and then go back to bed. Sure didn’t help me snooze any better. Eventually I sought help from an industrial psychologist friend of mine. He taught me biofeedback and it worked like a charm. Unfortunately, we had treated a symptom and I was no smarter for the experience.
Some years later, quite unintentionally, I gained a perspective that I have shared many times since…and have almost always been met with a smile of understanding when I do. At the time I was focused on helping a client strengthen his technical capability with a key objective being the recruitment of a new director of engineering. I asked one of the leading candidates (eventually hired) if he distinguished between stress and pressure and how he coped with each.
Most folks I’ve asked that question of have had long pauses and even longer answers; this candidate didn’t hesitate a moment. His response: ‘Stress is having problems with no solutions, pressure is having problems and solutions but not enough time.’
The candidate’s response may not be medically correct but for me, from a business perspective, it hits the mark. I’ve been directly involved in many enterprises that experienced dynamic growth and have seen firsthand that, almost without fail, such growth can push the best of us to our limits. Generally, you’ll know when one of your team has hit his/her limit; behaviors change, communication patterns change and results change.
As CEOs, our responsibility, no matter how busy we are, is to guide those who are stressed into safer territory. We have to find out if they’re dealing with ‘what to do’ versus ‘when to do it.’
If you can’t help them with ‘what to do,’ meaning there are no immediate solutions, redirect them to tasks that they can influence. Help them to prioritize and even more importantly, determine if additional resources will ease the pressure.
Here’s a ‘what to do’ example that I’ve seen more than once: a unique piece of equipment fails in the middle of a critical run for a key customer. Phone support from the equipment manufacturer cannot identify the problem and a technician has to be dispatched from Europe to troubleshoot—if no travel complications…expected in two days. In such circumstances, one can keep the customer informed but for now, it’s a problem with no known solution.
Avoid trying ‘fixes’ that haven’t worked hoping this time they will (like we do with our laptops). Instead, redeploy to more productive and self-satisfying activity. You’ve done all you can until the technician arrives.
As some have said: ‘There’re things you can control and things you can’t.’ Either way, there are times when there is simply nothing more you can do. From my experience I usually can sense, as can you, when someone is struggling with a problem with no solutions. When I do, I share the story about the director of engineering candidate and then help them to focus on those things within their control.