Understanding Two Sources of Stress At Work That Are Easily Manageable

During a recent workshop we had an eye-opening discussion about expectations and assumptions. The conversation highlighted how both can create unnecessary stress. As our clients began to open up about their own assumptions and expectations, I realized there were deeper connections to culture here.

While there is some room for interpretation, for the purposes of this discussion we’re defining each as follows:

  • Assumptions are things that are accepted to be true, without proof.
  • Expectations are a belief that something will or is likely to happen.

When both of these are explicitly detailed and communicated they serve as a structure through which culture is created, fostered, and maintained. Oftentimes however, our workplace can define these things silently or waver on them, which leads to a lot of confusion and ultimately stress and anxiety. Let’s examine how this plays out.

WORK HOURS

The company has no set hours; if you’re getting your work done, then you can do what you want. Most people show up at 10 and leave at 7. Some co-workers show up earlier, others stay later. Your boss shows up at 8:30 and leaves at 6.

The group expectation is that you’re in by 10. You show up by 9 though because you want to impress your boss. You also assume that if he’s in, then you should be there in case he needs to discuss something with you. When you’re not in by 9:15, you get stressed and it throws off your morning.

But you’ve never talked about this with your boss.

If you had, you might realize that he is actually getting in early because he wants time to himself to prepare for the day. On most days it doesn’t bother him, but when you come in stressed at 9:30, it throws off his morning routine. He knows he’s going to be stuck with your stress for the rest of the day. He wishes you’d just come in calm or arrive at 10 like everyone else.    

RESPONSIVENESS

Your company uses Slack, email, SMS, and calls to communicate. There’s no defined protocols for when to use which, but most people default to Slack, use email when people outside the company are included, and reserve SMS / phone calls for when someone’s not working or on the go.

Over the past few months of integrating Slack, people have begun to treat it as an asynchronous tool - using it to post stuff throughout the day as well as at 3am. The expectation is that items on Slack will get responded to promptly during business hours, or the next time you’re online if it’s after hours

One day you’re preparing a presentation and you turn off Slack so that you’re not distracted. A coworker asks you a question in Slack, but gets no response for 30 minutes.  They email you and still don’t get a response for 30 minutes. Finally they storm over to your desk and ask why you’re ignoring them.

You assumed that it would be fine to go dark for an hour or two to get focused work done. Your co-worker expected you to be checking in at least every 30 minutes.  

OR

It’s 3pm on Saturday and your boss sends you an email asking for some numbers for a report by Sunday evening. You try not to check work email on the weekends so you don’t see it until 5pm on Sunday when you’re preparing for the week. He’s upset with you for not doing the work, and you’re upset with him for expecting you to be responsive over email on the weekend when he should have called.

ASSUMPTIONS / EXPECTATIONS TO EXAMINE

  • Does your boss expect you to pass everything by him/her or handle things on your own?
  • Is it okay to check emails / text / phone when you’re in a conversation with someone? in a meeting? Do they find that rude or is it just how things go at your company?
  • Is the expectation that you’ll take some vacation, but never more than a set amount at a time (say 1-2 weeks)?
  • Do you assume raises will be given when you perform well? Is it okay to ask for them?
  • The company says it’s fine to work from home. When you do, how do you feel about it? When other people do it, what’s your interpretation of it?
  • What are your assumptions about being disconnected to help you focus on a task?
  • If someone’s a bottleneck, what’s an appropriate way to let them know that? If it’s been more than a week, how can you escalate?
  • How do you like to work (and be managed)? How does your boss expect you to work? What are their biggest concerns?

WHAT NEXT?

There are three keys principles to all of this - awareness, communication, and repetition. If you’re not aware that it’s happening, then you can’t speak to it. And if you can’t speak to it, then you can’t create change. And if you don’t reinforce that change, it won’t stick.

So over the next week start to notice what assumptions or expectations are causing stress for you or others in the organization. Make a list of items, and set up a meeting to discuss them.

The next step is crucial - create a space where it’s okay to be vulnerable with your co-workers. Show up ready to be open about what you’re feeling. If this turns into a dry bulleted list, you might not get the emotional resonance that could help create change. There’s no need for high-pitched emotions, but you should to feel comfortable expressing your feelings on these issues. It will help your co-workers do the same, and once a healthy dialogue is created, it will be easier to make change.

As with any habit or thought pattern - breaking these assumptions and expectations will take practice and repetition. You might have a conversation about something and then a week later still wonder if that was true. Have another conversation and help reinforce to each other the new, healthier assumption/expectation. Repetition is an important part of the process to build awareness and communication as a cultural habit, not a one-off meeting.

I'd love to hear what assumptions / expectations you're struggling or that you've overcome in the comments!

- Andrew