Workplace stress is a common problem, but as a manager, you can reduce the likelihood of your employees suffering from stress simply by changing the way you communicate.
The stress response is a reaction to an external cue—you can “talk” your employees’ stress responses into overdrive if you communicate a certain way. It is surprisingly common for bosses to use inflammatory language that sets the stress response up automatically. On the other hand, if you’re careful about the way you word things, your employees’ responses to work pressures are more likely to be positive and measured.
Here are seven things you should stop saying to your staff, and some better sentences to use instead to encourage calmness and productivity.
1. “I don’t want to worry you, but…”
This is surely one of the most cortisol-producing phrases in the English language. This sentence releases so many stress chemicals it should be banned from all workplaces. You’ve already set your employee up to worry by suggesting there may be something to be concerned about.
Say this instead: This sort of sentence is usually used to introduce a fear, rather than a certainty, that something may be about to go wrong. It is best not to mention worry at all. Instead, ask a question to check whether your fears may be justified. Eg. “Mike, did you double-check the figures on that spreadsheet?”
2. “We need to talk…”
This is another of those really unhelpful introductions that sets an employee on edge for no reason. If you say this to a staff member, they will immediately start asking themselves “About what? What have I done? Am I going to get in trouble?” Leaving an employee feeling worried and confused is not the way to get the best out of them, nor to make them improve.
Say this instead: Instead of dancing around the subject with ambiguous phrases, introduce the topic at hand immediately before asking to sit down and talk it over. Make sure the employee knows they are not in trouble and point out the scale of the problem. If there is only one thing that they are being pulled up on, then say so, so they don’t get stressed out for no reason. Eg. “Michelle, I liked this morning’s presentation overall, but there was one thing I think you could do better. Can we talk it through now?”
3. “I have some terrible news.”
There is no need to get your staff worked up over announcements and changes, even if they may seem to be negative. Using this sort of language can unnecessarily panic employees, leaving them feeling resourceless. Stating that something is “terrible” is a very black and white way of thinking, and suggests that there are no silver linings at all.
Say this instead: Let your staff decide for themselves what to make of news by giving them the facts, rather than deciding for them how they should feel. Be neutral with your language when announcing something that may be challenging. Eg. “I have an announcement from Head Office.”
4. “I don’t have time for this.”
If one of your staff members wants to talk to you, or needs you to sort out an issue, it is very discouraging to be told you don’t have the time. You may well be busy, but listening to employee’s concerns is an important part of a manager’s job too. Don’t leave your staff members feeling like they can’t count on your support.
Say this instead: Give your employees a sense that you are willing to listen. Don’t brush them off with an “We’ll talk about it later.” Give them a supportive message and a specific time when you’ll be free. Eg. “I want to give your concerns my full attention. Can you come to my office to discuss this at 3pm?”
5. “What’s wrong with you?”
When an employee is struggling, it can be frustrating for all involved. But using phrases that attack individuals is really unhelpful and can make employees defensive and stressed out. Sentences such as these make employees feel like you are making an attack on their personality. This should be avoided at all costs.
Say this instead: Don’t use language that suggests there is something wrong with an employee intrinsically. Use phrases that suggest that their application is the issue here. Be specific about what has gone wrong, so that you are not calling their whole skill-set or performance into question. Eg. “Andrew, you have miscalculated this column of numbers.”
6. “You need to…”
This is one of those seemingly innocent phrases that can actually put employees’ backs up and make them feel like you’re suggesting you are better than them. If staff think they are being talked down to, or ordered around, they may become defensive. Being too rigid in how you ask employees to do things can make them feel trapped and stressed out.
Say this instead: Make your employees feel trusted, and like you are giving them guidelines rather than dictating to them. Allow your staff members some personal agency by telling them what needs doing and suggesting resources rather than prescribing your way of doing things. Eg. “Susan, please could you write this month’s meeting agenda? There’s a template on the intranet that may be helpful.”
7. “You’re much better at this than Maria is.”
It is great to make employees feel valued, and to give them positive feedback, but this shouldn’t be done at the expense of other employees. Telling one worker they are better than another will make them both lose confidence in their team members and also make them worry about trusting you. If you’re able to put down a co-worker behind his or her back, when might they suffer the same fate?
Say this instead: Keep your grievances about other employees private. These should be addressed with the individual concerned at an appropriate time. If you want to compliment an employee, that’s wonderful, but do so by acknowledging their individual strengths, rather than comparing them to someone else. Eg. “You’re so good at replying to customer queries, Tim. I really like how you manage to be succinct, yet thorough.”
Featured photo credit: xiaming via flickr.com