Practice Development Counsel

Phyllis weiss haserot
Phyllis weiss haserot

President & Founder

212 593-1549

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9 Ways to Reduce Stress in a Firm Environment

Stress is a fact of life in the workplace – particularly when knowledge workers (professionals) are under increasing pressure to bill more hours and compete for clients and resources. Stress levels can be lowered automatically and the level of performance increased if people learn to identify what is causing the stress and use proven methods to neutralize the causes.

Nigel Williams, a coach, submitted “The Top Ten Ways to Develop a Stress-Free Personality” to the Coachville web site. His list includes nine strategies I have restated to apply to organizations as well as individuals.

  1. Stress and tension actually come from within, not external factors. Stress becomes a physical manifestation that something is wrong. There may be pressing issues from external causes, but it is how an individual or collection of individuals in a firm chooses to react and deal with them that causes the stress. So the first step is to identify the real causes. What are you and your colleagues avoiding and why is it being avoided rather than addressed? This is a big question, and once it is asked and answered, steps can be taken to fix it.
  2. Become more resilient by looking for lessons. When under pressure, individuals can be aware of their “self-talk,” listen to it, and determine to surface it in dialogue with colleagues. Everybody has self-talk, and usually it is in the form of negative messages and fears, but it can be turned to positive strategies if members of the firms look rationally at tension-producing events, use self-restraint to refrain from expressing negative emotions and behaviors, and look for valuable lessons learned. Then continue moving forward.
  3. Work to understand yourself and others better and self-examine as a firm. The better you know people, their capabilities and quirks, as well a the culture of the firm, that is, “the way things work around here,” the more you can be accepting or determined to work together for change. Besides being reflective on a regular basis (taking some time each day is good), there are some excellent assessment tools that identify behavioral styles and educate about how to capitalize on strengths as well as read other people’s styles and build better rapport. These tools, widely used in the corporate world, are becoming more readily accepted in professional firms, from my experience using them with clients.
  4. Be conscientious about avoiding burn-out. Negative, high stress emotions build when people are not rested and don’t have periodic diversions from their work. Firms should encourage (or even require) people to take vacations. Down time is refreshing and allows for creative ideas to percolate and come to the surface. It renews energy. Cultures in which being “on” 24/7 is a badge of honor ultimately do a disservice to both individuals and the productivity of the firm.
  5. Establish compelling values and goals. Just as individuals need a meaning and purpose to life, organizations also need a meaningful purpose for their existence beyond making money – which is assumed.. Determining and clearly articulating that purpose to everyone in the organization gives them motivation for work, a framework in which to set goals, and the inspiration for a roadmap to accomplish more than they otherwise could. It is stressful not to know where you are going and why, to have no guidelines for setting priorities about how to spend precious time and resources.
  6. Come to closure on both important issues and more specific strategies and activities. Address situations of conflict and tension as soon as they arise – they rarely get better with waiting or disappear of their own accord. Firms tend to try to sweep tensions and conflicts under the rug, as addressing them means admitting all is not perfect, and it takes time. Ignoring them costs more in time, loss of trust and credibility, and, ultimately money, spent on negative energy and non-productive rumors and side discussions. If too uncomfortable to handle with firm personnel, bring in a consultant or facilitator with conflict resolution skills to work through the issues and recommend ways to prevent these issues in the future. In the case of planning and strategic steps that are perpetually delayed, determine what the priorities are and move to carry out high priority strategies and activities. Follow through until they are done (and celebrate completion). Eliminate other items from consideration rather than having them linger with a stressful “maybe.” A firm cannot be successful long-term without being both thoughtful and decisive. (See
  7. Rise above fear of failure and take educated risks. Acknowledge that emotions get in the way, and rationally assess what is the worst that can happen if something new is tried. Professionals are often thought to be risk averse, but the most successful are those that act confidently after assessing risks and rewards. Fear of failure – if never eliminated entirely – can be accepted as a cost of doing business and overcome successfully by actually doing things that are feared and experiencing survival. Otherwise it is impossible to stand out as a leader and a leading firm.
  8. Move quickly to eliminate anger or it will take you or the firm off-track. Whether caused by fear, hurt or a perception of being threatened or attacked, anger is unproductive and can easily spread and heighten. As an individual and a firm, recognize the emotions of anger when they arise and choose controlled responses that don’t escalate the problem. Foster a firm culture that doesn't tolerate bad behavior or controlling people. Learn to see other people’s points of view and try reinterpreting situations in a more positive way. Before letting negative emotions take over, stop, think, realize that most things are interpretations and perceptions anyway, and focus on positive outcomes. (See also number 6 above.)
  9. Get busy working on goals for moving ahead on what really counts and what brings satisfaction. There is too much to do and time is too precious to waste it on stress-producing things. Emphasize true collaboration based on identifying and working together on individual goals that will contribute to abundance for everyone willing to contribute. Individuals can take responsibility for reducing stress in a firm environment by maintaining awareness of what causes it and refusing to get sucked in.

© Phyllis Weiss Haserot 2003.