Watching the Prime Minister’s ‘did he/didn’t he?’ bullying saga this week has been, in some respects, almost farcical (Peter Mandelson and John Prescott gesticulating and forcefully asserting that Gordon is not a bully) and, on another respect a stark reminder of the impact stress has on organisations and individuals.
Whether Gordon is a bully or not is a red herring. Publicly, he is eminently calm and reasonable; publicly Peter and John’s seem defensive and aggressive. Neither matters because external events, however hectic or unpleasant, don’t determine stress. What determines stress is how we as individuals react. How we internalise external stimuli.
Stress has been defined as “a demand made upon the adaptive capacities of the mind and body”. If these capacities can handle the demand and enjoy the stimulation involved then the stress is welcome and helpful. Seemingly Peter and John can. But what if they can’t and find the demand debilitating?
As internal communicators understanding the physiological responses to pressure and stress must be fundamental to implementing and delivering successful change in organisations. Bullying is just one of the factors that goes on, often undetected or unrecognised in organisations for exactly the reason that everyone reacts differently and therefore not everyone will exhibit symptoms of stress. Some may even be surprised by the allegation that someone is a bully. Frequent clashes with bosses; overwork and time pressures; long or unsociable hours are common causes. And, it’s not hard to imagine that working with a Prime Minister under extreme to extricate UK plc from the economic recession and facing a General Election in a matter of months that the work environment is fraught.
Effective leaders, and therefore effective communicators, should be aware that certain situations, especially over extended periods will have detrimental effects on proportions of staff which can only lead to dysfunctional people, teams and even businesses.
The impact is insidious rather than blatantly obvious. After all, staff being too busy to take time off, bringing home work and being unable to refuse more work happens – often it goes with the territory. But usually it comes to a natural end and there are periods of comparatively less pressure. When it doesn’t the symptoms will show as staff complaining about the quality of others work; being unable to cope with the pressure of work or work efficiently – or even using social media sites to let off steam about their organisation. If it continues, extreme exhaustion and reduced commitment to work become evident until eventually, at the point where HR become involved, absenteeism is rampant. The reality of the toxic situation is no longer a perception it’s a reality. And, of course, increased sickness levels put additional pressure on those who have been coping .
This economic situation with its ubiquitous re-structures and change programmes has already enabled internal communicators to raise their profile but it also gives us an irresistible opportunity to wrestle the staff engagement agenda, once and for all, from HR. We have key roles when it comes to the staff surveys by improving channels and communication courses. Yet we leave softer leadership skills, of which communication is one facet, and coaching another, to our HR colleagues, who for the most part, are still adhering to the signs of stress approach: unless you see the effects of stress – absenteeism – there isn’t a problem. Coaching and developing leaders is ours for the taking and it’ a key part of staff engagement. Who’s up for it?
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