Coping with On-the-Job Stress
Underwood, Anita, Black Enterprise
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. …