No matter what you do for a living, or how well organized and managed your workplace is, at some point, your employees will feel stressed. That's not necessarily a bad thing. A little stress can help us stay energetic, focused, and able to meet new challenges in the workplace. It's only when stress exceeds a person's ability to cope that it becomes a problem.
Often, managers look at stress as an office-wide problem and seek to implement global initiatives to reduce the burden. Some companies are getting creative, offering everything from free food and physical activity programs to "happy hour ranting sessions" to help employees blow off steam.
Every little helps. But arguably, it is the wrong approach. Everyone reacts to stress differently and everyone has a different tipping point—the point at which healthy pressure become unhealthy. There's no one size fits all, which is why global initiatives don't work.
A better approach would be to stop focusing on removing stress and start identifying each person's individual tipping point. This will help you and your employees react better to stressful events, strengthen resilience, and regain a sense of control at work.
The Mechanics of Personality Type and Stress
If your employees have taken a Typefinder personality test, they will each know their four-letter code; ESTJ, INFP and so on. This personality profile can give vital clues about what happens to a person both under everyday stress and in the face of chronic pressure.
Under everyday stress, people tend to rely on the leading part of their personality to the point where it becomes exaggerated. For example, an Extravert will become over-reliant on her Extraverted tendencies, growing increasingly loud and hyperactive. The balancing parts of her character—introversion, quiet reflection, self-control—essentially disappear. To an outside observer, this person has become a caricature of an Extraverted personality type.
If interventions are implemented at this point, then that's the end of the story. But often, the stress situation does not stop there. As pressure builds, it's the underdeveloped sides of our personality that become overworked and exaggerated. The Extravert in the above picture will transition from a position of exaggerated extraversion to one of extreme withdrawal—slipping deeper into a dark, thoughtful, alone place. A chronically stressed Extravert essentially becomes a caricature of an Introvert, retreating to the point where she literally flees from the stressful situation.
Was That Really Me?
When the least-developed part of our personality takes over, we call this being "in the grip" of our inferior functions. Someone is in the grip when their behavior becomes so atypical, that they no longer recognize themselves and their responses.
It can be very difficult to pull back from stress when you're "in the grip." That's because you have moved so far from your core personality that the usual coping mechanisms don't work anymore. In fact, you're probably going to have to do the opposite of what you might usually do to pull back from the brink.
With that in mind, let's look at the type-related signs that someone is heading towards stress, and what you, as a manager, can do about it.
Spotting the Signs of Stress—By Personality Type
Dominant Thinkers (ESTJ, ENTJ, ISTP, INTP)
Signs of everyday stress: You can be sure that the dominant Thinkers on your team are heading towards stress when they start obsessing about facts and inconsistencies, over-insisting on logic, attempting to seek a perfect solution to problems, and over-controlling the situation and other people. These are the outcomes when a hyper-exaggerated Thinking function pushes all the balancing functions out.
Signs of extreme stress: Under extreme stress, the least favorite, or inferior, Feeling function takes over. This manifests in oversensitivity, rash decision making, expressions of self-doubt and unworthiness, a tendency for the Thinker to judge himself and others harshly, and becoming increasingly prone to emotional outbursts.
Ways to restore balance: In the early stages of stress, have other people engage the Thinker in brainstorming. Thinkers need to talk to a wide variety of people about possibilities and ideas that could lead to solutions in order to break the extreme decision-making focus of exaggerated Thinking. In situations of extreme stress, identify actions that can be taken immediately and have the Thinker take them. Scoring a few early wins restores confidence in the Thinker's need to make good, practical decisions. Take special care of INTPs and ISTPs who likely will need to escape to restore their own balance. Excuse them from responsibilities for a period.
Dominant Feelers (ESFJ, ENFJ, ISFP, INFP)
Signs of everyday stress: A dominant Feeler is likely under stress when she starts taking comments or feedback as personal slights and criticism, and obsesses over one personal value at the expense of everything else. For example, an INFP who's obsessing about doing a good job might feel the need to be available 24 hours a day or obliged to keep checking her smartphone for work-related messages. These are the outcomes when a hyper-exaggerated Feeling function pushes all the other functions out.
Signs of extreme stress: The least favorite, or inferior, Thinking function takes over manifesting in exaggerated Thinking tendencies—focusing on cold, hard facts, losing patience quickly, becoming hypercritical of team members, condemning the feelings of others, and exhibiting lecturing and controlling behavior.
Ways to restore balance: In the early stages of stress, have the Feeler keep a healthy distance between themselves and other people's problems. Maintain periods where the Feeler is not working or thinking about work. That may mean taking away the phone and having them unplug in the evening or at weekends. In the grip of chronic stress responses, have the Feeler do 'Feeling' things to bring them back into balance. Acknowledge how they feel and let them talk it out. Remind them of their strengths and contributions. Don't use logic in these conversations!
Dominant Sensors (ESTP, ESFP, ISTJ, ISFJ)
Signs of everyday stress: Slipping into hyper "fix it" mode, having trouble being open to new things and believing nothing new will work are sure signs that a Sensor is struggling with the pressure. These are the outcomes when a hyper-exaggerated Sensing function pushes all the balancing functions out.
Signs of extreme stress: The least favorite, or inferior, Intuition function takes over manifesting in extreme naval gazing, analysis paralysis, blowing things out of proportion, catastrophizing, and extreme pessimism about the future.
Ways to restore balance: In the early stages of stress, give a dominant Sensor space to resolve her own problems. Break tasks into manageable pieces and give concrete, tangible examples of when the Sensor succeeded in this type of situation before. This will help to move the Sensor out of hyperfocus mode. In the grip of chronic stress responses, have a Sensor dial back the Intuition. Weed out the non-essential things on the to-do list and have the Sensor focus on priority tasks. If the Sensor has something particularly unpleasant to do, encourage her to get it over with early. Don't brainstorm or give her more to do. This puts the Sensing function back in control.
Dominant Intuitives (ENTP, ENFP, INTJ, INFJ)
Signs of everyday stress: A stressed Intuitive has a tendency to take on too many projects or accumulate ever-more ideas without being able to piece the information together. They likely will feel scattered and unfocused, withdrawing into themselves, or impatient with an increased tendency to debate. These are the outcomes when a hyper-exaggerated Intuition function pushes all the other functions out.
Signs of extreme stress: The least favorite, or inferior, Sensing function takes over manifesting in exaggerated Sensing tendencies—obsessing about a single detail, sticking closely to what they know rather than being open to possibilities, over-indulging in routine-oriented activities like eating or cleaning, inability to sift through the options, short-term thinking.
Ways to restore balance: In the early stages of stress, set the Intuitive deadlines to restore confidence in his decision-making abilities. Take away any extraneous projects so the Intuitive can focus down on the core tasks that need to be done. As chronic stress responses take hold, help the Intuitive re-find his Intuition. Give him permission to escape and find something new to get excited about. Encourage him to play with ideas; don't give advice or micromanage the details. Remind him that he is capable and competent.
Summing It Up
You can't remove stress from the workplace, but you can help people react better to stressful events. Learning to spot the tipping point between everyday and extreme stress reactions can be an extremely useful way to help your employees cope. Interventions made at this point will be far quicker and more successful at restoring balance.