The internet is a vast and expansive place ripe with well-intentioned advice. We have more information at our fingertips today than we ever have before. And as we’ve seen the accessibility of information increase in recent years, we’ve developed a collective understanding that much of the advice strewn across the world wide web is contradictory.
I recently found an article that promised to teach leaders “how to create a stress-free work environment” for their people.
I’m here today with a contradictory take on the leader’s responsibility for eliminating stress from their team’s work environment, and my point-of-view seems to be completely at odds with most of what’s been written on the topic.
I’ve got to be honest — As a self-proclaimed “leadership nerd” and someone who has led multiple high-powered teams throughout my career — creating a stress-free work environment has never been my goal.
Have I worked to create a burnout-free environment? Yes.
Do I strive to foster a toxicity-free environment? For sure.
Am I responsible for perpetuating a hostility-free work environment? Absolutely.
But a stress-free work environment? No, this has never been my goal as a leader.
Listen, not all stress is bad stress.
We need some stress to perform at our best.
Michael Bungay Stanier
’s latest book, How to Begin: Start Doing Something That Matters, he talks about the many benefits of setting “thrilling, important, and daunting goals.”
The idea here is that we only unlock our greatness by choosing to work on the “hard things,” whatever that means to each of us.
Bungay Stanier explains that for something to fall into this “hard but worthy” goal category, it must be “something that is ambitious for you in the world, something that is hard, something that will make the world a bit better but will also contribute to unlocking the greatness that is there within you.”
When I reflect on the “hard things” that I choose to work on, the important and thrilling things to me professionally can also be quite daunting.
You see, I’m an HR & People Operations Consultant for startups and small businesses. This means that, more often than not, my clients seek out my expertise long before they have a single HR person, policy, or process in place.
My job is often to swoop in, assess the employee experience as it stands today, identify what’s needed to transform that experience into one that functions as a magnet for top talent, and draw upon my expertise to create something out of nothing.
As a solopreneur, building a best-in-class HR or People Ops function out of nothing inherently brings an element of stress into the equation for me.
But not all stress is “bad stress.”
“Good stress,” or eustress, is the kind of stress we feel when we are excited about a new challenge we’re facing. This is the type of stress that keeps us “vital and excited about life.”
Our adrenaline might be pumping, but there is no threat of danger.
We need eustress to be healthy and happy.
Distress, or “bad stress,” on the other hand, is generally caused by a stressor that we perceive as being outside of our coping ability, and it decreases performance. This kind of stress can make us sick when it becomes chronic.
I don’t want my team to experience distress, but I do want to expose them to a certain amount of eustress.
When my team experiences eustress, I know they’re working on the “hard things” that will ultimately stretch them outside of their comfort zones.
It means they’re working on whatever goals are “thrilling, important, and daunting” to them. As Bungay Stanier would say, they’re working on “something that matters.”
If you’re a team leader or aspire to become one someday, I encourage you to protect your team from burnout, toxicity, and hostility at work. No one should have to put up with any of these things just to earn a living.
But don’t aim to protect them from stress.
Challenge them to take on ambitious things; things that are hard but will ultimately make the world a better place.
Because it’s only when they do the “hard things” — the thrilling, important, and daunting things — that they will unlock their true greatness.