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Maximising performance or just creating stress?

John Kirby Head

A leader should be skilled at getting the best out of coworkers. But all too often his or her leadership style can have the opposite effect. Karen Firestone, writing for Harvard Business Review, has some advice on how to avoid leader-induced stress.

There is extensive evidence that leaders tend to feel less stressed than the colleagues they lead. Firestone wonders, half in jest, whether some leaders have a special skill for offloading their stress onto others.

Leaders do, of course, find themselves under intense pressure at times, but stress is relative. With the advantage of offsetting factors like greater status, autonomy and job security – not to mention income – it is perhaps unsurprising that stress seems less of a problem for leaders.


Leadership expert Steve Arneson first described the ‘leader’s dilemma’: how to maximise company output without increasing worker stress to a level where returns diminish. The solution lies in a transformational leadership style which supports staff, gives positive feedback and develops respect, commitment and cooperation.

You need not look far to find examples of leaders failing to live up to this ideal. Firestone’s case study has a familiar ring to it:


Terri works as a regional sales manager for a business supplying medical devices. Six months on from its takeover by a larger company, she still has no idea whether she will be in work in three months’ time. Her new manager is unwilling or unable to give any clarity on her future.

The effects of this have included loss of sleep, low morale and high stress. She feels little motivation to work at her best for such a disrespectful organisation. Whatever the reasons, her employer’s approach has been highly counterproductive.


Firestone offers leaders five suggestions for reducing employee stress:

1) Try to create certainty and clarity. You may not have all the answers, and there may be confidential plans you cannot divulge, but be honest and considerate in dealing with employees’ questions. Being clear on job function, lines of reporting, remuneration and important organisational changes is a bare minimum requirement. When you fail to share information, people assume the worst and motivation suffers.

2) Be fair. A feeling of having been unfairly treated often leads to anxiety, blame-throwing and stress. Make sure you are even-handed in assigning time and support to team members. Make a point of listening to the views of each participant in a meeting. Recognise and respond when someone appears to be feeling ignored. And explain the rationale for your decisions clearly to all.

3) Show support and gratitude. Studies show that managers have a greater tendency to criticise than to give positive reinforcement. Circulate among your team and thank each one for something – like helping with a project, meeting a sales target, winning a customer or working late. Backing up your praise with resources and financial rewards will further assure them that their efforts are appreciated.

4) Exhibit self-confidence and competence as a leader. If employees are convinced of your capabilities, they will feel they are under the direction and protection of a good ‘pack leader’. Such reassurance gives a sense of safety, which is one of the key factors in reducing stress and increasing job satisfaction. Importantly, along with competence, you should show warmth.

5) Keep your promises. Leaders should exemplify the virtue of always delivering on the commitments they make to those who support them. If you offer or promise things to your staff but fail to follow through, you will add to their worry and stress. However good your intentions, don’t make promises unless you are sure you can keep them.

These five principles will help you build a safe and supportive environment for your team, with a stronger and more positive connection between them and you. And they will perform better and suffer less stress as a result.