Fireworks and short fuses!

Written by Rob McWilliam on 5 November 2014

This month of November, especially in the UK, is a time for fireworks! And, I’m noticing, not just fireworks of the pyrotechnic variety! Because recently I’ve been working with a number of executives who have expressed that they feel that they have a ‘short fuse’ and might ‘explode’ at any moment. They’re feeling higher levels of pressure that are turning into stress. 

There are a number of generic reasons that could be at play at this time of year:

  • For those organisations whose financial year matches the calendar year, the orders for 2014 are mostly in and it’s a question of securing the sales for this year’s P&L. This involves pressure and frenetic activity
  • Christmas and New Year festive period is fast approaching and this brings extra activities, planning and financial pressure at home
  • The shortened daylight hours can mean it feels harder to be energized, resilient or mentally tough
  • Many organisations are working leaner at present, with fewer employees to share the workload.

It’s also striking that, given these realities – and they’re fairly predictable, many of our organisations still struggle to provide their executives with ‘meaningful programmes’ to face and deal with the stress they might feel. A recent survey by James R Bailey (hbr.org) found that only 35 per cent of organisations provided such programmes.

So how can we in L&D be of use?

Well, let me tell you about Christine (her real name is changed for this article).  Christine is a senior manager in a large organisation. She has two teenage children. Unfortunately her husband is very unwell and this is one source of Christine’s stress. In addition, she reports that her working relationship with her director is “painful” as they have contrasting styles. On top of this, she feels overloaded due to a number of vacancies she is struggling to fill in her team. 

Christine is part of a development programme for the leadership talent in her organisation and therefore is a member of a learning set, which is designed into the programme. Recently, the set members held a meeting specifically because Christine asked for it.  She wanted to work through her situation with these colleagues. She felt that they were the only people she could talk to. She said that she felt ready to explode otherwise. She stated that her membership of this group was the key reason she kept coming into work. Her colleagues were fantastic: they listened, they empathised, they counseled and they coached. It was an honour to facilitate and to witness the trust and altruism at work in that meeting.

Everyone learned. Christine increased her self-awareness and identified some approaches to take. The colleagues refined their leadership skills. I learned more about the power and potential of this learning method.

So, as L&D professionals, if we’re supporting the development of the skills to hold such powerful conversations and are providing the culture and frameworks for our senior leaders to express, explore and face the challenges of the stress they feel, then we’re making a valuable contribution to the mental health of our organisation. Perhaps then the only fireworks we’ll see will be the ones in the night sky.

 

About the author
Rob McWilliam is executive development director at Change Formation. He can be contacted via rob@changeformation.co.uk

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