How Stress Impacts Your Team’s Motivation

BY Kathy Crosett
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Wouldn’t you like to know why your top seller works so hard to close deals and why your lowest producer can’t make the required 10 calls a day? Researchers want to know why too, and in studies done in the field of institutional and organizational psychology, they’ve come up with answers. Some of the difference in productivity is linked to the forms of stress your employees experience. Not every employee feels stress in the same way because their motivations are different.

Stress Impacts Your Team’s Motivation

In her recent article for the American Psychological Association, Stephanie Pappas reminds us that the ongoing pandemic has stressed us on every level, especially in our professional lives. Few employees have returned to the work world that existed before March 2020. We’re always pivoting and figuring out how to respond to new environments, responsibilities and interactions. The constant change causes stress. But, reports Pappas, “not all workplace stresses are created equal.”

Hindrance Stressors

Decades of academic research have shown that employees regularly encounter hindrance stress on the job. “Hindrance stressors…feel insurmountable — no matter how hard you work, a satisfactory result is out of reach.” If you’re pressuring your sales reps to make quota but ask all 10 of them to share a single engineer, they’ll feel they can’t succeed. After experiencing too many instances of hindrance stressors in the work environment, your reps start to lose motivation. Researchers report that workers need “autonomy, competence, and relatedness” in their professional lives in order to succeed. During the pandemic, these factors disappeared for many sales reps, especially because of hindrance stressors.

Challenge Stressors

As we continue to adapt to our new normal, you can redesign jobs and a work culture that incorporates these elements into your employees’ workdays. In doing so, you can build challenge stressors. Nobody enjoys stress when there is a negative outcome. But when your employees believe they can achieve a goal, they’ll accept the stress, and possibly thrive, as they meet the challenge, according to academic research on this topic. That challenge might include “learning a new skill” or taking on additional responsibility. These challenges work best when the outcome is something the employees value.

Understanding Workplace Motivation and Stress

Researchers have found that when employees “have the feeling of making progress at meaningful work,” their motivation increases. The definition of meaningful work varies by employee, of course. As a manager, it’s your job to learn what’s meaningful to each rep and help them move forward.

Asking employees about their motivation might not get you the answers you need. Many of us don’t have critical insight into what motivates us. You don’t have to guess at what drives your employees. You can ask them to take a comprehensive psychometric assessment.

You may be surprised to learn that some of your top performing reps value autonomy more than financial rewards. To keep them motivated, practice “leader autonomy support.” This phrase, from Pappas, is a reminder that most workers don’t want or need their managers to look over their shoulder constantly.

Manager Actions

When your employees know the outcomes you expect and have shown they can successfully close a sale, let them handle any problems they encounter on their own. As they develop solutions, they build confidence. If you sense that hindrance stressors are getting in their way, see what you can to remove roadblocks.

In the case of the employee who can’t make the required level of calls each day, review their sales acumen assessments to see if they’re placed in the right job. They may have more natural ability to thrive as a customer service agent. If you help them change positions, their level of stress will drop, and you’ll have retained an employee in your organization. If your low-​performing employee wants to stay in their current position, work with them to set goals and coach them on the skills they need to improve. We know stress impacts your team's motivation. But, once your team members feel competent and have mastered a task, their stress levels will drop. And you’ll be able to let them work more independently.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels