Although work medicine enjoys an undisputed place in the modern business world, addressing the key factors that impact the emotional health of managers still remains a taboo for many. And yet, this topic is becoming more and more of an issue, with undesired consequences for both the well-being of employees and the functioning of the organizations they work for.
By Liliane Held-Khawam, author of the book "Management by Coaching (MPC): Learning to Cope With Complexity in a Globalized Economy"
Indeed, according to our observations, the number of tired – if not exhausted – managers is constantly on the rise. Moreover, this malaise has a direct impact on both the quality of their management and on their personal well-being. These people are losing their overall vision, become reactive and are heading for a professional collapse, which shall happen sooner or later.
Although this tendency towards exhaustion has been observed for some years, it is not a fatality. It is potentially reversible, provided its causes and possible remedies are carefully identified.
The causes for the emotional destabilization of employees originate from dynamics that occur at 3 different levels:
1. the socioeconomic level
2. the organizational level
3. the personal level
Nowadays, organizations are caught up in the whirlwind caused by the strive to constantly increase market shares and profits. Always more is required in terms of presence, competency, polyvalence and adaptation, while ever less is offered in terms of security, stability, structure, clarity... This mix of explosive ingredients ends up becoming quite indigestible.
It is now universally acknowledged that globalization is, at the present moment, a quite unavoidable process. Yet this system has gained a life of its own and the top managers of even the largest companies have actually only been adjusting to this new paradigm.
These dynamics have been amplifying by an order of magnitude and as a result, the time of adaptation to change has become ever shorter. Managers have thus been deprived of their long term vision, as well as of the stability and clarity of structures and of the role they have to play within them.
Work has become very fast paced, as decision-makers tend to pursue short term results. They are mainly focused on two goals:
I. Increasing one’s global market share as quickly as possible
Companies, in a lack of time to develop this axis from the inside, will tend to achieve this goal by relying on a combination of mergers, takeovers, sell-offs and partnerships, with more or less desirable outcomes.
This short term orientation reduces the quality of the coordination among services and raises the level of stress of employees (with a sense of malaise). We thus witness the cohabitation of teams of employees who display completely different cultures, with the frequent emergence of unhealthy power relationships...
Finally, it is important to note that this growth-by-absorption frame of mind is no longer unanimously admired in economic circles...
II. Increasing one’s profit margin as quickly as possible
Shareholders also want short term returns. Stock markets are merciless in this regard. Corporate leaders are condemned to maximizing their profits in order to satisfy demanding financiers. This being said, the issue at hand becomes very straightforward: the company needs to maximize its income and minimize its expenses. All employees are due to contribute to the achievement of such results amidst a growing sense of insecurity.
We thus come to this quite disturbing situation everyone is aware of: as soon as a company starts laying off its personnel, its stock value increases.
The company’s management thus finds itself in the middle of considerable tensions and contradictions, with a growing risk of personal breakdowns...
Restructurings and reengineering processes, when conducted within a short timeframe, lead to a destabilization of the organization. Such actions will have a direct impact on the well-being of managers.
Indeed, a growing number of managers develop a sense of powerlessness in relation to their professional goals. Indeed, one of the manager’s basic tasks is to adhere to and participate in the materialization of the company’s strategy. This is the root cause of the problem. It may for example result from:
1) An absence of strategy: as surprising as it may seem, lots of companies simply have no strategy at all. They are completely focused on short term results and on their competitors. They have become very reactive, taking decisions according to day-to-day opportunities and dangers.
This type of behavior further degrades the amount of time available to react, the management’s vision and, in the end, the global coherence of its actions. Orders are immediately followed by all types of counterorders, leaving managers at a loss.
2) A lack of communication – or understanding – of organizational strategy: this reflects a deep-seated problem in communication processes. In this case, managers cannot properly relay information. The probability of witnessing a drop in both performance and well-being increases sharply.
3) A change in organizational culture: some decision-makers are not sufficiently aware of the impact a reengineering process will have on corporate culture. Moreover, organizational culture (definition) cannot be the same if one evolves within a traditional pyramidal structure or a process-oriented organization.
Quite obviously, it is not because a structure has been changed that the cultural change will take place instantaneously. Changing the culture will indeed require much more time than changing any organizational structures.
In the case of mergers or acquisitions, we can also oftentimes witness cultural clashes within some sectors that can go as far as the harassment of certain individuals. Managers can thus feel completely overwhelmed by such cultural issues, which are often overlooked by the company’s top decion-makers.
4) An insufficient definition of each person’s role and responsibilities: outlining each manager’s role is a key factor in allowing them to express their potential. Insufficiently clear and/or changing role-related duties are a real source destabilization and stress.
Please mind that each role may be broken down into two parts: a technical role with quantifiable goals and a human role with quantitative goals. The quantitative role is often clearly stated, as it provides the basis for the introduction of ever more precise performance indicators.
Indeed, in some companies, these indicators will be used to determine compensation levels. Given the drastic demands in terms of profitability, this situation may put managers in a situation of failure from the very moment their goals are set. All of this can result in a loss of motivation, if not a sense of utter powerlessness, for the employees concerned.
As for the human role that deals with personal or collective responsibilities, it is often incomplete, or even occulted. The company ought thus to determine each manager’s positioning within the organization’s human environment (illustration). This consists in stating the responsibilities and expectations in terms of behavioral and technical skills towards both managers and the teams they are in charge of.
The following factors are linked to the person’s psycho emotional dimension. The requirement for maximizing results and the ongoing restructuring processes can lead to the following effects:
1) Fear: this feeling has become extremely widespread nowadays. The risk of being laid off can even scare successful employees, as "it doesn’t only happen to others". Also, some may be afraid of disappointing others.
2) Loss of self-confidence: this a natural consequence of fear. It has been evidenced by the evolution in organizational structures where managers are asked to talk more often in public, to take more risks, etc.
3) Loss of trust in one’s hierarchy (as well as in the company’s leadership!)
4) Guilt: managers can feel that they are not doing enough, that they are not up to the task and that they do not take enough care of their people.
5) Loss of control: technological innovation, coupled with frequent changes in the demands formulated by the management have a destabilizing impact on the conduct of projects. Such frequent changes are linked to increased demands from the employer and can lead to a sense of losing one’s grip on events.
6) Cleavage between one's inner thoughts and external appearances: managers may put a bold face on it and try to be pleasant towards their environment while negative thoughts are pervading their inner life.
The impact of an unstable environment on the managers' lives
The destabilization caused by accelerated change impacts both the professional and personal life of managers in different ways. Although the consequences may greatly vary from one person to the other, they will all result from an excessive amount of stress. It will indeed prove difficult for them to build anything lasting in a context of intense pressure.
This is how all types of addictions (to work, alcohol, drugs, medicines...) find their way into many people’s lives, as well as a loss of concentration, nervous breakdowns (including burn-outs), problems in their private lives, etc.
Such destabilizing factors can also have diverse impacts on the manager’s professional life. Some managers may become workaholics, thus increasing their degree of weariness and the risk of errors. Others will, in the contrary, do as little as possible, thus falling into a kind of inertia, which they will pass on to their team(s). Some people may also stop circulating information, thus generating interpersonal conflicts or even increased employee turnover. In extreme cases, some executives will exert moral or psychological harassment, thus rushing their own malaise onto others.
Whatever its causes, the resulting destabilization will sap the ability of managers to adapt to change and technologies, whether in a private or professional context.