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The Burden of Unclear Expectations

Whenever change occurs in an organization, experts say HR needs to focus on setting and communicating realistic expectations to the workforce.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016
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Results from a recent survey, conducted by ComPsych Corp., revealed that the top cause of employee stress may not be exactly what some HR professionals suspect.

More than 2,000 U.S. employees across all job levels and industries responded to the survey that focused on key triggers of employee stress as related to workplace change. While changes affecting workers such as company instability are commonly believed to rank high among stress factors, the survey's No. 1 response -- 31 percent -- was unclear expectations from supervisors.

"Without expectations, without accountability, people tend to get lost, [become] more frightened," says Eric Antens, senior training consultant at Chicago-based ComPsych, a global provider of HR services and employee assistance programs.

Survey participants also acknowledged other situations producing employee stress, including confusion or conflict between coworkers or departments (20 percent); a belief that their workload will increase or become more difficult (18 percent); uncertainty about the future or questions about their employer's stability (15 percent); and new processes, operating rules or skills needed (13 percent).

Whenever change occurs, employees typically seek meaning behind the change, says Antens.

"When there's a change in the workplace, people will ask why," he says. "What's important for managers to understand is if they don't get in front of that, provide the why, then the employees will. Generally, it won't be very flattering."

Through training, reinforcing expectations and frequently communicating the reasons behind change, he says managers can help employees move toward other questions, such as, "How can I move forward or respond in a productive way?"

When addressing the people issues surrounding change -- such as conflict or confusion among staff -- ­Antens says it's important to pay attention to individual behavior rather than making assumptions about an entire group of workers. Not all may share the same feelings of resentment, anger or fear that ultimately contribute to stress.

Likewise, some managers inadvertently act as stress enablers by minimizing the workload of stressed employees or excusing sloppy work.

"It's not a time to enable employees to underperform," Antens says. "[K]eep them active and engaged so that the experience of self-efficacy is present and they're not feeling less adrift or victimized by these changes."

But some people thrive on change. Organizations, especially those in rapidly changing industries, need to recruit more employees who are both resilient and productive during times of chaos and uncertainty, says Seymour Adler, an organizational psychologist and partner in the talent practice at Aon Hewitt in New York.

He says some employers look for talent "in all the wrong places," adding that one of his financial- services clients recently analyzed its most successful middle managers. Surprisingly, it discovered that the ones who attended "B" undergraduate schools versus Ivy League universities were actually better performers. Many of those "B"-school attendees didn't have a smooth path throughout life and were "knocked on their butts," he says, which forced them to develop extraordinary resilience and coping abilities, and learn not to get stressed when things go off the rails.

HR can build assessments that measure adaptability or nimbleness to offer insight into a job candidate's resiliency, he says. During interviews, recruiters can also ask specific questions about how job candidates reacted when something got in the way of completing a project. "Look for resourcefulness, [the ability] to bounce back from failure and frustration and having to deal with obstacles," Adler says.

Company leaders can also act as stress busters while leading employees through change by providing optimism, calmness and stability. He says if HR is focusing its energies on honing resilience among senior executives, it should invest in people who are naturally wired or born that way.

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Meanwhile, he believes the survey's results are simply a reflection of the times.

"What you see in this survey is not a blip for 2015," says Adler. "[Change] is today's reality. It's chronic."

Stefan Gaertner, a Los Angeles-based senior principal at Mercer, wonders if some of the stress reported by survey participants was actually positive.

Most organizations, he says, don't focus on how stress can be a driving or creative force that helps companies compete in a global market. Instead, they emphasize its strong link to issues involving absenteeism, poor health or employee turnover.

However, through attrition, selection and socialization, he says employees tend to adapt to their circumstances and end up embracing change.

"If you're in the tech sector that experiences rapid change, over the years, you will attract people who can live in this environment," says Gaertner. "You will promote people who thrive in this environment. People who can't deal with it will leave."

He believes the survey's findings show that HR professionals need to focus less on the mechanical side of change, such as developing a new organizational design, and more on the people side of change, partly by equipping employees with better coping skills and explaining the circumstances that led up to the change.

Another takeaway is that HR can develop a better understanding of both sides of change -- how employees must learn to cope with it and how change is necessary for businesses to remain competitive.

"That's part of the role of HR," Gaertner says, "being the intermediate between these two forces that always exist in organizations."

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