Shakespeare’s King Henry aptly said, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
Despite the perceived glamour of power, the stress that it accompanies can disrupt the entire enterprise if it is not well managed. Whether you’re a lawyer running a small practice or a partner managing a large international law firm, the stress of responsibility can impact everyone who works for you.
Many associates directly tie their job satisfaction to the interactions they have with their supervisors. If the interactions are tense or unpleasant, the associate feels uneasy and less satisfied, developing more stress and low morale, which leads to a higher turnover rate, increasing the stress of the manager. And the cycle reinforces itself.
The most effective managers are those who recognize the source of their stress, manage that stress effectively and prevent that stress from spilling over to their employees. When a manager’s stress trickles down to his or her employees, it can negatively affect their work quality and productivity, again increasing the manager’s stress.
If you have found yourself in this cycle before, or are currently in it, give thought to making some changes.
Here are a few suggestions to start:
Understand the source of your stress. The stress you may feel throughout the week comes from multiple sources, some significant and some not so much. Whether the stress is about bringing in enough business to keep the firm solvent, managing difficult personalities among the staff or your family life, identifying exactly what is causing the stress can help. If the source is known, you can take concrete actions; if the stress is vague and global, little can be done to effectively manage it.
Be aware of how you typically respond to stress. Responses to stress can range from avoidance to aggressive behaviors. Some people cope with stress through vices like alcohol, drugs, overeating or escaping into videogames, etc., while others direct their tension toward those around them by being overly critical, rude and verbally aggressive. The more you are aware of your typical responses, the quicker you will recognize when stress is affecting you.
Address the source of your stress you can control (and accept those sources you cannot). Once you pinpoint the source of your stress, you can identify what you can actually do about it. Is there something within your control that will improve client referrals? Can you fix conflict between employees? Can you set clear boundaries and expectations for associates? Can you improve your communication with loved ones at home? Once you identify what you actually control and act in those areas, accept the things that are outside your control. Knowing the difference between these two categories is called wisdom. If you are unsure about what you can and cannot control in your stressful situation, ask someone who can help you determine it.
Develop an action plan to deal with your feared outcomes. Much of our stress is about feared future outcomes, the “what if…” questions that plague our minds and steal our sleep. Once you have done what you can to impact the source of your stress, develop action plans for what you would do if the worst case scenario were to occur. If your greatest fear is that your firm suffers financially and you have to lay off staff or close the firm, make plans for how you would handle that. What would you actually do if you had to close the practice? This is similar to emergency plans that towns, schools and organizations have to deal with to address a whole array of disasters. No one wants a fire to break out in their building, but having an emergency evacuation plan reduces the fear of a fire emergency. Similarly, no one wants their firm to suffer, but having a plan for how to deal with financial loss can reduce your anxiety.
When you face your stress head on, have an effective way to deal with it and don’t pass it along to those around you, you reduce the impact of your stress on you and the people in your life.
Shawn Healy is a licensed clinical psychologist on staff with Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts.