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Anxiety and Stress Disorders

How to Deal with Stress in the Workplace?

11/30/2001

Question:

I have a situation at work that is causing me great stress. A co-worker who I have had a generally good relationship with (stress points have flared from time to time) is falling behind in work, making mistakes and lying to cover it up. My work is dependent on his work and when his work is bad, I look bad too. I don`t see that there is anything I can do to resolve the situation, save from mounting a case to point out his lies, and it is making me very anxious. When I have to confront him about something, I can feel my heart pounding and my blood pressure rising. I take my frustrations home with me and my patient spouse listens and tries to talk me through it. How can a person combat a co-worker`s lies, besides rising blood pressure?

Answer:

Although it would be gratifying to find a way to confront a person about their past behavior, it is difficult to do so and still maintain a cordial working relationship.

Your best bet may be to focus on the specific behavior of not getting the job done and how you can prevent this problem from happening in the future.

The key issue in your case may be getting the person to follow-through, not trying to correct what’s already in the past. When you want someone to follow through, think of it as a three-phase negotiation.

It’s great that you have a patient spouse who will listen to you:

get your spouse to play the role of your co-worker and try out the following techniques on him/her. If you want to be successful, practice, practice, practice before you try it out in the real world.

The first phase is an initial conversation covering the following 5 points:

1. Get a verbal commitment from them to perform the task. Don’t just get them to say “yes”, try to build their commitment to doing their job by getting them to say “Yes, I will do {xxxxx} and get the information to you.”

2. Get a specific time frame: instead of merely asking for the information, try to pin the person down to a specific time. Try using phrases like “What’s your time frame?” or “How long will this take?” to get the person to be clearer about what they need to do.

3. Get the person to develop a sense of obligation – let him know how you are going to alter what you do. Let him know that if he withdraws and it will impact you.

4. A sense of conscience: let him know how important his help is to you and he will feel guilty about not following through on his commitments.

5. Ask him to envision what he’s going to do, from the first step to the last by asking questions like “What are you going to do first? Then what? Where?” and so on. The key is one that car salespersons have found: if you can get a person to sit in a car and imagine driving the car, they will buy the car.

The second phase is closing the deal: summarize the conversation with a firm verbal confirmation and a simple phrase like “So, you’ll get the information to me by Monday, right?”

This particular approach of summarizing and confirming has been shown to increase participation in volunteer activities like blood drives. There’s no reason why you can’t try it either! The third phase depends upon a person’s basic need to be consistent and have their ego stroked.

Basically, it involves letting him know that he’s the type of person who does follow through on promises. Using phrases like “You’re the kind of person who...” You’ve always impressed me with your ability to...” or “I’ve always liked the fact that you...” take advantage of a person’s need to be consistent and appeal to ego.

Because a powerful basic human need is one in which people need to act in a manner consistent with how they see themselves and how they think other people see them, it’s a mistake to say “Come on, please do it”; “I knew this was going to be a problem”; or “I don’t know why I bothered to count on you.”

Although it certainly would be gratifying to confront the person, this does not generate any psychological motivation on their part to prove you wrong – and if you want them to do their job, you’ll have to accept the fact that for this individual, it involves “proving you wrong” time and again.

So, as the deadline approaches, let him know that you appreciate the fact that he’s someone who follows through! When asking someone about his progress on a task, try phrasing it as “You know, I appreciate all the help you’re providing me. I really respect that fact that you’re the kind of person who follows through until he gets the job done”.

As a final note: be sure to document what you’ve tried, just in case things do not work out.

For more information:

Go to the Anxiety and Stress Disorders health topic, where you can:

Response by:

James Short, PhD
Assistant Professor
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati