In Conversation With Dr. James Quick

December 18, 2014 Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions

Dr. Quick is a professor of ethics, leadership, and preventative stress management at the University of Texas at Arlington. In the following interview, Quick discusses the most common sources of stress in the workplace as well as the impact that good and bad leadership can have on how employees manage stress.

Knightsbridge: A lot of people have the idea that stress in the workplace is good for productivity and creativity. Is that a misconception?

Dr. James Quick: It’s not a full misconception. Stress is probably our best asset for legitimate emergencies and to achieve peak performance. But we learned 70 years ago from Walter Cannon that mismanaged stress, excessive stress, unnecessary stress is lethal.

KB: What are the most common sources of stress in the workplace?

JQ: The top three are lack of control, uncertainty, and mismanaged conflict. I would add to that an issue that has been prominent in the last 20 years, which is work-life balance.

KB: Some organizations are willing to accept a certain amount of stress risk to their employees because they believe it produces better business outcomes. Does stress actually produce a better bottom line?

JQ: Overstress does not, and the evidence on that is pretty clear. It’s finding the sweet spot in the stress load – and that varies by individual as well as by groups – that produces the highest productivity.

You don’t want too much stress because that becomes dysfunctional, and you don’t want too little because then people don’t do anything.

Designing work environments so that people are excited and stimulated and grow and produce well, that’s not so much science as it is an art.

KB: So is it possible to have enough stress to trigger productivity, but still have a healthy workplace?

JQ: Absolutely. I think this is where good leadership comes in. Good leadership is supportive, empathetic, compassionate, understanding. Gordon Forward, the Canadian who founded the world-class Chaparral Steel Company in Midlothian, Texas, did a masterful job at this. He liked to talk about being in business for fun and profit in that order. He was also very clear about what he was doing, and that is producing steel. If you wanted to kick back and have fun all the time, you could go somewhere else.

KB: What or who are the major sources of stress?

JQ: Sometimes it’s the boss that’s causing the stress. We don’t do enough, I don’t think, to select people for senior leadership that have well-developed emotional competencies. A lot of people think emotional competencies are ‘soft skills.’ That’s not true. Our emotions are hard-wired and they are not soft. But in choosing leaders, we often still ignore emotional competencies and focus solely on academic competencies. Good leaders may be a little smarter academically, in terms of words and numbers, but where they really stand out is in their ability to demonstrate empathy, self-control, and interpersonal emotional skills.

KB: Are organizations ignoring emotional competencies as a leadership skill?

JQ: There are some really great examples of leaders and organizations that are doing the right thing. But as MIT management professor Doug McGregor said in his 1960 book The Human Side of Enterprise, what many people don’t realize is that stress and how you treat people are instrumental business values. McGregor made it pretty clear that you’re not going to get good bottom line results without good people and treating people well.

Some managers just don’t fully understand the importance of the human side of the enterprise. Organizations could be doing a better job at looking at emotional competencies in their leaders.

KB: What is the best way to teach emotional competency?

JQ: Well, there are two parts. Part of it is inherent. We are born with certain strengths and predispositions. However, what we do with what we inherit psycho-biologically, that’s really up to us. So, some people may start with a little and expand that dramatically. Others start with a lot and then squander what they’ve been given. Developing emotional competency starts with understanding how much you have inherently, and then figuring out how much you can grow. And really, the limit in how much you can grow is unknown.

It’s important to remember that not everybody should be a leader, and that’s okay. We need followers, we need technicians, and we need experts.

KB: Are leaders who fail in the emotional competencies a major cause of stress in organizations?

JQ: In the late 1990s, we started doing some biographical studies and some interviews to produce an executive health book. One of the people I studied was former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He was a brilliant man, but emotionally he was incredibly insensitive. What he did to people around him was because of his insensitivity, not getting it at an emotional level. In some cases, we find that people simply don’t care about the effect they are having on other people. That’s probably the worst kind of person to have in a position of responsibility or authority.

KB: If you work for somebody like that, what kind of stress is that creating for you?

JQ: With a leader like that, you don’t have emotional support; you don’t have any empathy from that person.

Most human behavior is learned; it’s not instinctual. The two behaviors we don’t have to learn are how to explore and master the world, which is the root for productive work behavior; and the other is attachment behavior, which is our need to feel safe and secure.  Good leaders have the capacity to empathize with and connect with people that they are leading, to understand them. They don’t always agree with them, they won’t always let them off the hook in terms of responsibilities, but they will be concerned and care. The leader who doesn’t have that capacity leaves the follower socially and psychologically isolated. And that, in and of itself, is a significant source of stress and distress.

KB: In part of your book, "Preventive Stress Management in Organizations" you refer to preventative stress management as a philosophy. Can you expand on that? How would you advise an organization to adopt this philosophy?

JQ: Work organizations from our perspective should be productive, should add social and cultural value to the systems that they’re in, but they also should be humane, and concerned with the people that are in the organization. They should not be indifferent to their people. As Gordon Forward would say, ‘my workers are not labor costs; they are human assets to be developed, to be concerned with.’ Forward had a guy that made a mistake that cost the company a half a million dollars. Dr. Forward and the CEO had a discussion with this person about what happened. The guy thought he was going to get fired, but [Forward] said ‘why would I fire you? I just invested half a million dollars in your education. You need to learn from this and grow and develop.’

So there is an economic argument for why we ought to be preventing problems, caring for people, but there’s also a humanitarian argument.

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