THE BLOG
01/25/2013 11:37 am ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

The 5 Subtle Signs of Workplace Fear and Stress -- And How to Manage Them

Let's face it -- unless you're a U.S. Supreme Court Justice or tenured professor, "job security" is an oxymoron these days.

As a result, in my coaching practice, I see significantly higher ambient workplace stress and fear than ever before. To say, "you should just deal with it" is to ignore the toxic effects that block an organization's sustained success.

After all, when fear of losing a job (or an overriding desire to hang onto it) is more important than doing it right, one can't consistently make the best choices. Ironically, that in turn can make those fears self-fulfilling prophecies, and over time, results will suffer accordingly.

Taking note of the obvious signs of fear and stress

Leaders and managers should assume fear and stress are alive and well in their workplace. It's critical for them to ferret it out, rather than let it fester or wait for it to flare up. An observant leader can actively reduce the toxic side effects of fear and stress among their team more than they know.

Whether you notice it or not, your people are worried about losing their jobs, paying bills, higher workloads, and/or coping with competition for jobs and clients -- all the while trying, sometimes in vain, to balance work and life. Certainly when the obvious signs are there -- tapping feet, moodiness, frustration, fatigue, and tension -- it's up to you, the leader, to notice them and address the underlying causes.

Addressing the more subtle signs of fear and stress-

While the obvious signs can be easier to read, it's also important for you to hone in on the five more subtle signs of fear and stress:

1. Take notice of issues being tolerated for too long: Your instincts and careful observation will help you note when your people are being overly tolerant of a problem or issue. They may be doing this because they don't want to seem "high-maintenance," but the toll is too high - letting an issue fester into a major resentment or rift affects everyone. When you catch it happening, ask about the underlying stress or fear that's keeping them from addressing their annoyance, and help them take tangible steps toward resolution.

2. Observe the "yes to everything" syndrome: People-pleasing is a common reaction to stress. When you see someone taking on too much or being overzealous about workload, it's helpful to remember that it's likely fear or stress-related. Remind them that it's okay to say no. Short of that, they risk overloading their team, propagating stress, and diminishing returns.

3. Be wary of "all good news": As you monitor what's happening on your team, you'll know when your people are stopping short of bringing issues to your attention in a timely and proactive manner. As their leader, it's important that you get bad news as soon as possible. To manage this type of reaction to fear and stress, discuss an incident where you knew too little about the "bad" too late -- and explain how the consequences of glossing over a problem can be worse than addressing it early and head on.

4. Monitor deliberate avoidance of robust debate: When you see too much consensus and too little debate amongst your team, it can certainly be a sign that people are afraid to seem disagreeable. However, debate is healthy for sustained success. It's important to encourage your team members individually, and at group level, to engage in earnest debate in order to make the best possible decisions.

5. Tune in to patterns of accountability: When something blows up -- which is inevitable -- stress or fear can cause it to become a hot potato of blame or denial of responsibility. Address it privately and candidly, encouraging the important practice of accountability. If you let it continue, a lack of personal responsibility can become an unwanted part of your organization's culture.

Finally, it helps from time to time simply to ask your people a direct question about their ambient stress level. That, in itself, can be a great way to begin an ongoing conversation about what each of you can do to manage it.

Taking stress more seriously and playing a more active role in understanding and helping your colleagues monitor and manage it is not just a nicety -- it's good management -- a necessity given the pace and demands of the workplace, now more than ever. Your attention to this area will ultimately be reflected in the moods and attitudes of your team as well as the overall results of your organization.