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Managing Expectations: Understanding Team Needs and Reducing Stress

If you were in a room filled with 100 working professionals and asked those who had experienced stressful situations at work in the last month to raise their hand, how many hands do you think would go up? According to the American Institute of Stress, the answer is about 83. Their research indicates that 83% of Americans suffer from employment stress, with 25% citing it as the number one source of elevated stress levels in their lives.

With stress experienced almost universally in the workplace, how does it affect our work? And, more specifically, our teams? Since individual stress reactions are unproductive behaviors observed by–and directly impact–those on our team, they can result in a spectrum of negative outcomes, from hurt feelings to loss of productivity. But there’s good news here. 

At Birkman, we’ve learned that stress reactions are a window to our needs, and it’s when these needs go unmet that stress reactions arise. However, as a leader, if you are not continually reminding yourself of the relationship between needs and stress, you’re missing a big piece of the stress management puzzle. Once you work to intentionally understand and attempt to meet the unspoken expectations of your team, these efforts can have big payoffs in reducing the effects of stress. 

Identifying Your Team’s Stress Triggers

Team members are sometimes unable to articulate what they expect from others in the workplace, possibly because they do not have a firm grasp of their own needs or cannot put the right name to them in a way everyone can comprehend. But there is a way to understand your team’s stress factors and recognize signs of stress. The Birkman Method allows leaders to understand what their team members expect in the workplace, what reactions might occur when these expectations are not met, and how this workplace stress might impact the team.

The Relationship Between Needs and Stress

A team snapshot utilizing data from The Birkman Method can lend perspective to how this might play out on an individual team and what stress signs the team leader might learn to recognize. For example, eight professors in the art department of a large research university continually balance the responsibilities of providing meaningful instruction to students and fulfilling research and publication requirements mandated by the university. The Birkman Method identifies three overarching needs of the team. These indicates what this particular team expects in the workplace to be most engaged and at ease. Because unmet needs and stress reactions are so closely related, possible unproductive behaviors from the team can also be outlined, along with the impact on the team.

This group of professors needs minimal interruptions, group inclusion, and flexibility in planning. What does this mean in terms of stress and team impact? Here’s what the team leader needs to know to help avoid chronic stress on the team of professors.

Team Workplace ExpectationStress ReactionPotential Team Impact
Fewer Interruptions: This team of professors not only teaches but also conducts research. They become frustrated if they don’t have the time to focus on pulling together the information they need to move their research or class work forward. They prefer minimal change and consider it to be just another interruption.When this expectation for effective time management is not met, the team may not finish tasks on time due to scattered concentration or being completely unwilling to adjust to necessary interruptions or requests for change. The group might have lower productivity due to missed deadlines or very low tolerance for change, viewing it as a focus-stealing disruption. This can result in elevated change fatigue that drains the group of energy and leaves them closed off to new ideas. 
Group Inclusion: Even though the team needs focused time to complete tasks without group interference, they don’t want to feel like they are working in a silo. Members of this team want to interact with the group at times and feel accepted by their peers.Under stress, the team might be easily influenced by “groupthink” or say what they think others want to hear because they desire group acceptance. Falling into “groupthink” and losing the benefit of divergent opinions can lead to the team not examining all sides of an issue and reaching an ineffective decision.
Flexibility in Planning: Juggling competing responsibilities is a hallmark of this team, but they do not want to be micromanaged as they attend to those responsibilities. They expect broad schedules and trust from leadership to get their work done with minimal oversight. If the team senses leadership is too controlling of their schedule, they might resist authority,  procrastinate, or even fail to complete tasks.Excessive or unwarranted pushback to leadership directives can damage trust on both sides, while rushed or incomplete tasks will always reflect poorly on the team.

Taking the Initiative to Reduce Stress

Once team expectations and stress reactions are understood, you can begin to take intentional steps to foster an environment in which stress triggers are less prevalent. Using the above example, the leader might start with the following three steps to meet team needs:

  • Limit ad hoc meetings and schedule time on team members’ calendars to discuss issues that arise rather than interrupting their focus time by popping into their office unexpectedly
  • Talk with the team to determine a frequency that works for a group lunch or happy hour to reinforce that they are part of a supportive team who values their insights
  • Set agreed-upon time frames to receive project status updates rather than continually “checking in” with the team or setting deadlines without team discussion

Removing all stress from the workplace is not a likely scenario, but developing a framework to meet team needs better and reduce the negative impacts of stress is a reasonable expectation for every leader when equipped with the right tools. So break out your toolbox, leaders. Your team needs you.

Want to better understand the needs of individual team members, how these translate into team needs, and learn to make a plan to minimize stress for your team? Our High-Performing Teams workshop is just what you’re looking for.

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