What individual stress says about organizational defects


There is never enough time to get everything done, everyone is always busy and some people are stressed.

Not in a good way. Not in the way that makes you perform better, also called eustress.

Stressed in the way that means they are not happy.

How should organizations deal with this?

Most approaches revolve around helping individuals deal with stress through education, coaching or counselling.

It is seen as a problem that the individual needs to work through and solve.

Now, imagine you are in a large factory making widgets and the inspector finds a problem with a widget, say it has a crack.

The crack is a defect. The inspector does not blame the part for the defect – there is clearly something wrong with the system of production that has resulted in the defect when the part was produced.

Instead, the production line is stopped until engineers figure out what is going on and how the process can be fixed to make sure that defective parts don’t keep being produced.

We are still in the very early days of knowledge working environments and knowledge workers.

It is easy to say that stress is a problem for individuals and should be dealt with at that level.

This, however, is an example of the fundamental attribution error – saying that something is happening because of the people involved rather than the situation they are in.

There is a case to be made that cases of individual stress should be treated as symptoms of organizational failings.

The system creates the conditions for stress to develop.

Research shows that changing organizations instead of focusing on individuals could have real benefits.

Some organizations are trying to address this. Jason Fried, the founder of Basecamp, talks about “library rules” in this interview with the Harvard Business Review. At their offices they:

  • Work like they are in a library – you know, quietly.
  • Minimize interruptions, both physical and virtual.
  • Create deep communication; write things up and give people time to respond in their own time.
  • Dial down the speed; does everything always need to be in such a rush?

And much more.

There are no answers that are going to work for every organization – many people will disagree violently with Jason’s practices and argue that they won’t work for them.

The question, however, is that in a world where knowledge work can be done by anyone, anywhere, which organizations will develop the capability, processes and resources to pull ahead of the rest?

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