Dear Alistair

Dear Alistair,

I have recently been promoted to the position of manager within the company for which I work. I have no prior experience as a manager, and trying to get my team members to perform at the level required, with enthusiasm, is causing me a lot of stress. Please would you share some tips on how I can reduce my stress levels.

In responding to your concern I have chosen not to focus attention on stress management techniques but rather to focus on what you, as a leader within your company, can do to build your team members’ engagement with their work. Getting this right will make your job as manager significantly less stressful.

Firstly, it is crucial for you to understand that becoming an effective manager is a difficult journey of personal transformation that requires you to learn from experience, usually over many years. As you are undoubtedly aware, management is responsibility for the performance of a group of people. And what makes this so difficult seems to me to be because you must influence others, which means you must make a difference in their actions. And to do this, you must make a difference in the thoughts and feelings that drive their actions. So, although management is defined by responsibility it’s done by exerting influence such that you enable your team members to be productive as individuals and, especially, as a group.

Research undertaken by the Harvard Business School suggests that to influence and even change the behaviour, thoughts, and feelings of individual team members, managers spend their time in numerous brief person-to-person interactions. Most of these interactions are reactive, not proactive, and very few result in major decisions being made. Managers spend much time trying to influence people mostly by asking, requesting, cajoling, persuading, encouraging and, very rarely, by issuing direct orders.

In trying to understand why team members are not performing as required, you might think that the problem is your lack of knowledge, experience, or skill, especially your inability to manage time. In truth, the problem in large part is likely to be due to the fundamental nature of management itself, which is unavoidably pressured, time-constrained, fragmented, and hectic. It is almost never reflective, carefully planned, organised or controlled.

But you can help your team members to become more engaged with their work and up their performance by giving attention to how you relate to them. In particular, you will need to ensure that you use the power that comes with the position of being a manager with kindness and compassion. In fact, the person-to-person relationships you form with team members are the basis for how you influence them. And the basis of this influence is trust, rather than your position.

Becoming an effective manager is about knowing how to use yourself as an instrument to get work done. Ongoing self-assessment is therefore critical. And remember that you want to create an environment where your people feel secure to explore new ideas, take risks and innovate! The skill of empathy is therefore a crucial one to cultivate.