A reader asks:
I work a fairly high-stress management position. It's the kind of job that comes with frequent six-day weeks, not a huge paycheck, a lot of customer interface, and the responsibility of a regularly shifting staff of seasonal employees.
I'm concerned about how I comport myself as a manager. I don't have much management experience, I'm not much older than the majority of my staff (sometimes younger), and I have a friendly demeanor that I worry sometimes confuses my staff's perception of me as a manager with being a peer. More worrisome than that, however, I've gotten the sense that I sometimes give off an aura of "overworked or stressed" that shakes my staff's confidence in me. Or, possibly worse, it gives them the impression that I need their sympathy and help. For example, I have one employee whom I've had multiple discussions with regarding her habit of putting her hand on my shoulder and saying, "Aw, what's wrong?" or "Oh, my god, you seem really tense!" (I think the last and firmest conversation a couple of months ago put a stop to it.) On the other end of the spectrum, I have another employee who apologizes every time she interrupts my work with a (completely valid!) question.
I don't want to create this kind of energy or foster a negative perception of me. It's true that I am not infrequently stressed (evidently, I'm not hiding it as well as I thought) and I'm a human being. I think trying to white-knuckle smile my way through will come across as totally disingenuous and do nothing to foster the relaxed, yet focused and fast-paced atmosphere I'm striving to create. What are some good strategies for finding a happy medium of acknowledging stress and creating a positive atmosphere? What's my obligation as a manager in terms of conveying or hiding how I'm feeling?
Ideally, part of your job as a manager is to minimize stress and drama to the extent that you can. It's pretty tough to work for a boss who's frequently visibly stressed out. You could be inadvertently signaling to your staff all sorts of things that you don't want to signal -- like that they need to worry that things are falling apart, or that they'll be letting you down if they take time off because things are always so hectic, or even that you can't handle the job.
As a manager, you're basically on a stage. Your staff will pay a huge amount of attention to what you say and the energy you give off. Your comments and your demeanor will carry enormous weight -- much more than they did when you weren't a manager -- and you have to carry yourself with that in mind.
That doesn't mean that you need to have a Stepford-Wife-ish sunshiny demeanor at all times -- but if people are asking what's wrong and saying, "Oh, my god, you seem really tense," that's a sign that you need to rein it in.
So -- what's giving people that impression? Are you always so rushed with people that you don't have time for more leisurely conversation, ever? Are you regularly talking about your stress and workload and making comments like "I don't know how I'm going to get this all done" or "I'll be here all night"? Are you saying other negative things about your job or your workload? Are you projecting a "the sky is falling" vibe?
I don't know exactly what behaviors they might be noticing, but reflect on that, see if you can nail it down, and then consciously work to not to do those things.
If you're stumped and don't know what you're doing that's giving people this impression, you could ask a couple of the people you have the best rapport with. You could say, "I'm getting the sense that people think I'm overstressed and in need of sympathy. I respect your opinion and I wonder if you have thoughts on what I might be doing that's making people worry about my stress load." (Of course, make sure your tone is calm and curious -- not frustrated or stressed, since that would just add to the problem.)
Also, I want to be clear: You're allowed to be human. You're allowed to have days where you're tired or too busy for anything but emergencies. The issue is if it's your regular mode of operating -- that's when it starts worrying people that either the organization is in chaos or you are.
Because of that, one of the most important things you can do for your staff as their manager is to project calm. Not in a bizarrely removed from reality kind of way (which can make people think you're out of touch), but in a genuine, "yes, there's a lot going on, but things will be fine" way. If that really wouldn't be authentic for you most of the time, that's a flag that you might need to reconsider how you're approaching the role (both mentally and practically), and maybe even whether it's a good fit for you. But, before you worry about that, try making a deliberate effort to do the stuff above and give it some time to see if it changes the dynamic.
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