Overtly, most of us say we dislike stress. But often we unconsciously hold on to it, thinking: This is the way real leaders act.
Stress and I have had a long, complicated relationship. Early in my career, it often felt like my naturally lower-stress, quiet management style was an impediment to advancement.
Many years ago, as a young man being considered for executive ranks at a Fortune 500 company, I found myself having the same odd conversation, with only minor changes in phrasing, with several senior executives on different occasions. When discussing my future, the dialogue went like this:
Senior executive: “I just don’t know about you. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but you don’t seem like a manager. You just don’t seem like executive material.”
To which I’d normally respond: “Why — what is it that makes you say that?”
The answer would be: “I don’t know … you seem too quiet, too soft-spoken, too calm — not authoritative enough.”
Back then I was managing sizable projects like the company’s annual report, working with CEOs, CFOs, and the like, so I’d ask: “But doesn’t it make more sense not to judge my personality, but to judge results? Do people generally like working for me? Do I get things done?”
And the concluding answer would be: “Yes, that’s true, but I still just don’t know … .”
I came to think of my laid-back, low-stress style as a managerial disability, a low-grade but chronic management disease I had to overcome if I were to succeed. (I eventually ended up working in management over two decades and becoming a vice president.)
But this isn’t about me — it’s about the lens we routinely use to view managerial talent. Over my decades in business I worked with and observed a similar dynamic time and time again: classic high-octane Type A’s (aggressive, impatient, with high stress levels) most often ended up with top leadership roles while classic lower-volume Type B’s (calm, patient, more laid back), who were nonetheless extremely capable, ended up in lesser positions. When it comes to talent assessment, it seems we tend to make decisions with blinders on, defaulting to an expected model of high-stress, high-intensity leadership.
There are two big problems with this. First, when unchecked Type A behavior creates a persistently stressful environment for the team, it’s a recipe for employee disengagement. Yes, there are Type A individuals who are among the most admirable people I’ve had the privilege to know: brilliant, boundless energy — keen judges of character who achieved off-the-charts performance. But we all also know high-intensity managers who can be counted on to deliver a tough project but leave a trail of bodies in their wake. Ultimately, that’s not an efficient long-term model. Ideally, employees will want to come back for more next week, and in the weeks and months after that. Over time, a chronically stress-packed management style breeds burnout and turnover. The best management is sustainable. Stress isn’t. Managers with high stress levels pass that stress along to others. Everyone in their immediate orbit feels it, and the simple fact is people don’t do their best work while anxious.
Second, it’s unfortunate for all the potentially excellent Type B managers out there who are being overlooked because they haven’t earned their stress merit badge. This can frustrate talented individuals, especially if they have an interpersonal skill set that lends itself to building strong relationships and gaining the loyalty of others. And from an organization’s standpoint, outstanding managers aren’t exactly in such abundant supply that we can afford to needlessly limit the pool.
Most of us, of course, aren’t exclusively Type A or Type B personalities, but possess elements of both. We can consciously cultivate calmness, turning down the A volume a bit while turning up the inner B.
Doing so brings changes that are both physical and emotional; the beneficial effects have been well documented since Drs. Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman began identifying and defining Type A and Type B personalities in cardiac studies back in the 1950s. At the same time there’s a ripple effect: a reduced-stress work environment invariably is welcomed by employees. More relaxed behavior sometimes presumed to be unleaderlike can yield improved leadership results.
To this point, I still remember a discussion I had years ago with a sports marketing executive who reported to me. She was highly experienced and capable and had grown tired of what she viewed as my overactive involvement in her operations. (Truth be told, Type B managers aren’t immune from lapsing into occasional micromanagement!) “You know, when you’re managing creative people,” she said to me, “you’ll get the best results if you just tell them what to do, not how to do it. Just give good strategic direction and then let them figure out the best way to solve the problem.” When I moved backward she moved forward, with renewed energy and productivity. It was good counsel and I used it often, when circumstances called for it.
Of course, a low-stress Type B management style needs to be combined with high standards and strong results-orientation. A low-stress approach will get you nowhere, except likely out of a job, when combined with low results. But when backed by a solid commitment to quality and excellence, and supported by motivated employees who appreciate less stress in their working lives, that’s a highly productive combination.
by Victor Lipman