Project Managers, Stress is YOUR Spice. Use it successfully.

Filed under Becoming a PM | Posted by MMeloni

“Stress is like spice – in the right proportion it enhances the flavor of a dish. Too little produces a bland, dull meal; too much may choke you.”
~Donald Tubesing

A little bit of stress is good for you. In fact stress can improve your performance and your productivity. Think about studying for an exam or training for a 5K race. This is good stress; you push yourself towards a difficult yet obtainable goal. Think about presentations you make to your project steering committee or to your executive management. You may feel a bit nervous or stressed about presenting to such an important group of people. Hopefully this stress leads you to prepare your best presentation. Eustress is the word for productive stress. Eustress actually means good stress.

In the above quote, eustress is that right amount of spice. The right amount is an enhancer, too much leads to distress. Distress is negative stress. Distress is not productive stress. Distress is destructive and demotivating. It leads to suffering.

If you only had five minutes to prepare for your project steering committee presentation, this could lead to distress. If you had five days to prepare, you might not start until a day or two before the actual presentation. This might be the right level of stress for you. Or perhaps you might not start until the night before the presentation. Although this certainly turns up the stress level, this could be the right level of stress for you.

To continue with the analogy of stress is like spice, maybe you order your food with extra chili peppers. Sitting right next to you could be a team member who says, “Hold the chili peppers, don’t put them on the side, I do not want to see them on the plate.” This makes it difficult for the two of you to order shared dishes.

If stress is like a spice, necessary in the right proportions to keep a dish flavorful, it is also true to say that not everyone can handle stress in the same amounts. Some people are veritable stress junkies they thrive on it. They will tell you that they work so much better under pressure. Others will tell you that just the mention of a deadline two months from now is making them lose sleep.

Your distress could be someone’s eustress and vice-versa. Just as with spice, we all have different tolerance levels.

The challenge you face as a leader is to understand how to use stress effectively. First you need to understand your tolerance for stress then you need to understand the tolerance levels of your team members. Then you need to find ways to provide the right levels of stress. You will need to rein your stress junkies and you will need to teach your stress averse to increase their stress tolerance.

You can accomplish this by recognizing and rewarding the right stress related behavior. Encourage your stress junkies to meet earlier deadlines and discourage last minute fire-fighting. In fact when a stress junkie brags that he or she was up all night to meet a pre-planned deadline, remind them that not only was this unnecessary and not required and completely their own doing, it also introduced an unnecessary amount of risk to the project.

When your stress averse team member balks at a tight deadline, stand firm and encourage them to get to work to meet the deadline. Show them your support and let them know that you see them as fully capable.

This will take multiple iterations and fine-tuning. Yet one day you will look up and notice that you are all sharing a dish with about the same amount of spice in it!

Wishing you productive stress.


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