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Coping with on-the-job stress.

Real-life strategies for managing executive stress

It's a fact: Everyone, regardless of ethnicity or gender, is experiencing work-related stress. For companies to gain and maintain a competitive edge, executives are under increasing pressure and to run highly effective and efficient operations. To achieve this end, restructuring and downsizing have become the norm. Consequently, working in the '90s means doing more with less. Can work stress be avoided? Not likely. Can we find better and healthier ways to cope with it? Most definitely. The key is to determine how you deal with stressful situations now and to alter your responses.

Conflicting Work Styles

Different work styles are often the cause of stress for professionals, primarily because there are so many approaches or methods of getting things done in the work place. First, there is an overall company culture or style; then, there is a manager's style, and finally, an employee's personal style.

Some conformity is necessary, but often African-Americans find it difficult to leverage the value that being different brings to their job. Everyone is required to meet rigorous performance standards; however, white executives are often permitted a wider range of behavioral styles to achieve them. There may also be a conflict in your work style and your company's management style. For example, your approach to assignments may be detailed and methodical. Although this is a good skill to have, some managers may find it too slow and time-consuming. In another company, however, being detail-oriented may get high marks.

Kim, a mid-level manager in a consumer products company liked to tackle her projects alone, working out all the details before submitting her proposal for approval. This method had worked fine in her previous positions, but in her new job, Kim's manager gave lukewarm approval to her work. "I attributed this difference of opinion to racism and sexism. But, I felt hopeless because I couldn't change that. So, one day I confided in my secretary, who had worked for the company for five years. She said: 'I think you are very smart. It's not the quality of your work, it's that you both have different styles. He likes to be involved in the detailed process of projects. He needs to be updated constantly. You have a tendency to not say anything and just give him a completed project.'"

According to John Aldrich, president of Aldrich Associates, a management consulting firm in Shelton, Conn., Kim was operating under a false set of assumptions. "She failed to understand and get clarification of the unwritten psychological contract. Unless expectations are clear between manager and employee, stress can develop because you are working from two different agendas," says Aldrich.

The Glass Ceiling

Breaking through the glass ceiling is still a major challenge for African-American professionals. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, while gains have been steady, they have also been slow. In 1983, there were 482,000 African-Americans or 4.5% in executive, administrative and managerial ranks. At the end of 1991, there were 858,000 or 5.7% who held those positions. Over a period of eight years, the net gain was a dismal 1.2%.

General dissatisfaction can occur because black professionals often have to work twice as hard, and must try stay in positions longer than their white counterparts to prove they can handle the next assignment. This can be discouraging, particularly if you know that you are ready for that job now.

"I stayed in my position almost five years before I was promoted, and when I finally was, it was to the level below the executive ranks," says Jim, 36. "It was very disheartening watching other colleagues get executive promotions. After working 12-hour days, five days a week and giving the company my best, I felt undervalued and decided to leave for an executive position with another company," adds Jim, now a vice president with a major financial services company in Los Angeles.

The Informal Network

There are two lines of communication in any corporation - the formal channels via meetings or company newsletters, and the informal channels, commonly referred to as the grapevine. Feelings of isolation can develop when a professional does not feel a part of that informal network where information is shared, the politics of the company culture is discussed and feedback is given about how employees are perceived in the organization.

Not being in the loop can be very frustrating, according to Peter Wilburn, 24, a sales representative for Mobil Oil Co. in Edison, N.J. One year ago, Wilburn's district underwent a realignment and reassignment of its accounts. "I was not privileged to know which accounts would be mine, but I found out through the grapevine that the other reps had influence over which accounts would be theirs. I felt left out and cheated because I was not a part of the process that influenced which accounts were assigned to me."

Informal networks often confirm that you are okay. "By tying into other colleagues you can find out information that you wouldn't know otherwise," says Philip Berry, human resources director for international business development at Colgate-Palmolive in New York City.

Balancing Work And Personal Life

Trying to meet the demands of work, the needs of a partner or family and finding time for yourself is a juggling act. Most executives admit it is difficult to equitably meet the needs of work and family, and often there are tradeoffs, with work getting the lion's share of your time and energy.

Balancing work and personal demands are not just a concern for women. Brian, a training manager at a national consumer products firm in Atlanta, shares responsibility for his 8-years-old son with his wife, a market researcher for a national computer company. "This means that if my son gets sick at school, I will pick him up. Or, if child care is unavailable, I may stay home with him. By placing a high value on spending quality time with my family, I've had to figure out how to work more efficiently." Brian admits that his choice may affect his career path. "I am concerned about the perception that other people may have regarding my commitment to my career. My progress could be slowed, but I am clear about my values and priorities in life. Sure, there are consequences to balancing work and family, but I have learned to live with them."

Effective Strategies For Coping With Stress

The challenge for African-American professionals experiencing frustration and working under highly stressful conditions is to learn how to develop effective coping mechanisms. Like the sources of stress, coping styles will differ. But, there are a few general guidelines that can help.

* Understand the unwritten rules. Bill, a senior executive for a multinational petrochemical company in Los Angeles, says: "My biggest problem was not knowing the unwritten rules. So you get bad marks and you don't know why," he says. "The corporate world is built on a model that is different from that which many African-Americans are accustomed," says Colgate-Palmolive's Berry. "Most of us are the first or second generation in corporate America. Our parents and family can't really give us advice to help us cope. Mentors or a support of other African-American professionals within the organization can help you better understand the company's culture." * Know thyself. At the end of each year, conduct an assessment of your strengths and development needs in six areas: career, financial, spiritual, personal relationships, community and social involvement and health. Based upon your findings, set goals for yourself and review your progress toward them quarterly.

Greg Hill, a vice president at Inland Real Estate Investment Corp. in Pittsburgh, a $1.3 billion services firm, took a proactive approach to minimizing stress by selecting an environment he felt would be most conducive to his succeeding. "I did an initial assessment that centered around three concerns: What kind of environment would I need to meet my financial goals? What kind of job and company would give me the most freedom to make me happiest? After answering these questions, I created a lifestyle that was built around those needs."

Career counseling can also help you identify the kind of work environment for which you are best suited, which may even mean changing careers. * Strike a balance between your work and personal life. Bob Gore, sales director at Group W Television sales in New York City, manages stress by making balance a priority. "I believe that work is not your entire life. You should not invest too much in your job. Work delivers certain things you need - self-esteem, financial reward and a sense of accomplishment. However, you can't expect to have total fulfillment if you are trying to meet someone else's agenda. Striving to achieve balance is the key to a healthy approach." Integrate other elements into your life. Participate in church and community activities, as well as socialize with friends. * Turn to external support to help you cope. Sometimes stress can be so overwhelming that you are unable to manage it alone and professional help is need. Many companies offer counseling or referral services through employee assistance programs. Often managers are reluctant to use them for fear that the information will not be kept confidential and could be used against them. But, for those who don't feel comfortable using company resources, an outside therapist is an alternative. * Relax. Achievers often think their time must be spend engaging in work-related activity. Regular exercise can be a mechanism for reducing stress. "I find that when you're travelling a lot, you need to have outlets like exercise," says Berry.

Meditation and prayer may also help you cope. "We must rely on a higher force within us," says Maisha Bennett, Ph.D., president of Hamilton Behavioral Healthcare Ltd. in Chicago and president of the Association of Black Psychologist. "The answers will come if we allow ourselves to get quiet and stop fighting the problem." * Be happy! Understand what motivates you and create an environment where you can be at your best.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
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Author:Underwood, Anita
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Aug 1, 1992
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