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Get SMART: A Conversation with Ed Muzio (Part 3)

Posted by on May 17th, 2012 with 0 Comments

Ed Muzio is the author of the award-winning books Make Work Great (McGraw-Hill, 2010) and Four Secrets to Liking Your Work (FT Press, 2008). His analytical approach to human productivity has been featured in national and international media, including CBS, Fox Business News and The New York Post; he is a regular contributor on CBS Interactive, The Huffington Post, and Monster.com.

Ed is funny and thoughtful. Over the next four weeks, you’ll see those qualities in our conversation about the impact of goals – particularly SMART goals (defined as Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound) in the workplace.

3) Stress

Glenn: Ed, in your model/experience, what is the relationship between stress and output?

Ed: They’re the denominator and numerator of an optimization ratio. I know how you love it when people talk math to you.  It’s that simple –  just like you want to optimize how many miles you get out of your car per gallon of gas you burn, you also want to optimize how much output you produce at work relative to the stress you experience or create.

By the way, I should point out for all the hybrid and e-car owners, there’s no pass here for alternative fuels.  Every vehicle on the road achieves miles per some unit of energy.

Our unit of effort at work – our energy spent – is stress.

Glenn: So, what you’re saying is that stress is both an input to the system and an output of system? Is stress the chicken or the egg? Or maybe it’s better to ask what causes stress?

Ed: Well, it would be easy to say “too much work” or “unclear goals” or something like that, but let me be a little more provocative:  What causes stress?

WE DO.

There is no magic fairy that appears in the office at night, muddies the mission, bogs down the computers, fires half the staff, and erases the goals.  The people in the workplace do all the things that lead to the stress in the workplace.

Each of us is one of those people… that’s why the “per stress” in the equation is “per stress you experience OR CREATE.”  When you run around the workplace, unsure of what you’re doing, creating confusion and complexity for other people because of your own worries or lack of direction, you become a source of stress.  We all know this because we’ve all worked with someone like this.

Having said that, one of the major reasons I’ve seen that people cause stress is that they don’t know what they should be doing – and obviously, that’s a lack of clear goals.  So I’m curious – in your work with people on their goal-setting – have you found that stress levels sometimes go down once clear goals are in place?

Glenn: This is a good time for a ‘yes and…’ response.

Yes, stress sometimes goes down, and yes, sometimes stress goes up.

It seems to be a matter of replacing the bad kind of stress – where you’re blindfolded and told to pick apples, but “oh, by the way, there might be snakes in the trees”, with the good kind of stress – where you’re stressed because you’re doing something you love and you want to do well.

If we agree that some stress is good, then when should we be worried about workplace stress? And when should we not be concerned about it. What is the ‘right’ amount?

Ed: Asking what the right amount of stress should be is like asking what the right answer is on the “per gallon” side of your ratio when you calculate your mileage.  Your favorite answer would be zero, but of course, that’s not possible because you have to expend energy to move. And besides – I’m talking math again – you can’t divide by zero!  So, then the answer becomes, ‘as little as possible’.

Of course, that leads to the question, “how little is possible” – a very complex question, both for cars and for organizations, because it depends upon what you’re trying to do.  If you’re trying to haul seven people around in an SUV, you’re going to have to use more gas than you would if you were driving alone in a subcompact. That’s ok. Similarly, some forms of output at work are going to require more stress than others. The trick is to avoid creating more stress than necessary.

It has always seemed to me that SMART goals help with this.  Somewhere within the “A” of attainable lies the notion of “at what cost?”  Do you agree? If so, how do you handle it in your SMART as Hell methodology?

Glenn: Actually, I deal with the ‘at what cost?’ question in ‘Relevance’. I use a tool called the ripple map to assess what the intended and unintended effects of a goal or action will be. You can’t decide on the relevance of a goal until you know all of the effects.

We’ve been talking about the stress of creating output, but can the existence or non-existence goals cause stress in and of themselves? Do you have an example?

Ed: Certainly, goals can cause stress when they’re unclear.  The “bring me a rock” story I tell in my SMART video is a great example of stress caused by unclear goals.  And – as we discussed last week – there’s the opportunity cost.  Certainly if I’m falling behind on one thing as I work on another, I’m destined for stress.  That could be a goal issue, as in my goals driving me toward the “ladder on the wrong wall,” or it could be an achievability issue, as in I “can’t possibly do everything I am supposed to do”.

But I think really clear goals can drive stress in another way, too, which is to make it clear that I’m not equipped for my job.  If I’m dead-on clear about what I’m supposed to do, and I can clearly see that I’m not doing it, it forces me to eventually ask the question, “why?”  In my language, this purpose plus progress makes it obvious when you lack resources, or skills.

Discovering those problems can be stressful, though I’m not sure it has to be.  There are approaches both to addressing resources and skills.  But if people don’t know what to do, it becomes stressful, and maybe even an issue of pride or ego, if the gap is seen as a personal failure.

I’d think pride and ego come into play in your work as well – do you think people set goals out of ego, either over-inflating based on overconfidence, or under-committing so they’ll look good?

Glenn: Absolutely. Those are two of what I call “The Seven Sins of SMART Goals”.

One sin is setting goals too high. These are often called ‘Stretch’ goals, but when they are set arbitrarily, employees get stretched to the snapping point.

The second sin, under-committing, is what we call ‘sandbagging’ – setting a low target that you can easily exceed. At SMART as Hell, we balance those with the “Aggressively SET assessment “. If your goal will Scare the competition, Engage the team, and Thrill the customer it’s likely to strike the right balance between over- and under- committing.

What do you think of that? Would it cause undue stress?

Ed: It sounds to me like one of those situations where a penny now saves a dollar later.  It probably is a little more stressful to commit to – and execute – an aggressively SET goal than an easy one.  On the other hand, it’s a lot less stressful to work for a financially stable, successful company than for one that’s failing because it doesn’t ever accomplish anything useful…..

Tune in next week for part four of “Get SMART: A Conversation with Ed Muzio”, where Ed and I will discuss the effect of goals on stress. 

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