From the November 2007 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

November 1, 2007

Stressing for Success

Tension, pressure, and pain--just another day in the life of an advisor

What could be more satisfying than the life of a financial advisor? You're helping people solve their problems, get rid of financial pressures, become more secure, and attain cherished goals. So why the tension headaches, acid stomach, insomnia, and maybe even an intense desire to start happy hour right after lunch?

In our performance-driven culture, stress is something many of us constantly struggle with. But by learning to master it, we can sometimes turn it to our advantage. To teach yourself better ways to cope, consider how you might handle situations like these.

Q: Another planner and I are at the same level of seniority in our firm. He's aggressive and rides herd on his staff all the time, while I'm laid back and give my group more freedom. When he tries to push my team and me around, I think he counts on the fact that I won't push back because I'm a woman. So far I've been keeping quiet and letting our monthly performance tell the story, but the constant friction spoils my pleasure in my work. Is there a better way to handle this?

A: I think what you're asking is whether or not you should play his game. You can always try to confront him and out-aggress him ("I'm not going to put up with this.... Try it one more time and you'll be sorry!"), but I suspect that your strengths are more likely to be your ability to build consensus and inspire teamwork.

Many women find aggression more painful than men do. Our preference for accommodating others and avoiding conflict appears not just to come from indoctrination, but to be neurologically hard-wired. Understanding this difference may help you view his objectionable behavior with more detachment. If you'd like to know more, pediatrician and psychologist Leonard Sax does a wonderful job of analyzing male/female dissimilarities in Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences (Broadway, 2006).

It could also be that this guy's behavior pushes your buttons by reminding you of an overly aggressive male in your personal history. If so, learning to separate him emotionally from his predecessor will make his bossiness less irritating to you.

After reflecting on these issues, consider meeting with him about the difference in your management styles. You might tell him that you know he's only doing what comes naturally, but so are you. If you're not judgmental about his behavior being "bad" and yours "good," he may pay attention to what you need from him in order to do your job more effectively.

But even if he's willing to cooperate, don't expect radical change at once. You might rehearse a few humorous quips to use when he tries to boss around the employees you supervise. This could help him stop short and recognize his knee-jerk autocratic behavior.

In the meantime, you may need to practice whatever self-soothing techniques work for you. Deep breathing, meditation, or a pleasant walk could help you distance yourself from this stressful situation and get back to a more peaceful inner state.

Q: One of my staff has a hard time dealing with job stresses. About a year ago, he started some medication that helped him a lot. He was doing so well, in fact, that he apparently decided he didn't need the meds any more. Now he's withdrawn and bad-tempered again. I know I need to speak to him, but I don't want him to know that I'm aware of the medication issue, which I was told about in confidence. How should I handle this sensitive conversation?

A: My suggestion would be to look for an appropriate catalyst (such as a client's difficult demands) to open a discussion about job stress with your employee. To make it less formal, you might invite him out for a Starbucks break or lunch. Start by mentioning work stresses that you face, and explain how you're trying to handle them. Or you could share some personal stresses you've been coping with of late. This way, your staffer won't feel like he's the "identified patient" and get defensive.

Then ask how it's been going for him recently. Encourage him to open up about what bothers him, and try to listen without judging or jumping in to address his complaints. You might bring up some stressful event that occurred when he was handling things well, and observe that he seems to have a somewhat harder time coping with such tough situations now.

If he admits that stress is more of a problem these days, you could bring up some stress management techniques that you've found to be effective, such as asking for support from fellow workers, family, and friends. Once on this topic, you might relate the story of a "friend" who was helped tremendously by medication that relieved his overreaction to stress. Ideally, your employee will then open up about his own experience with meds, and you can weigh in without having exposed his secret.

Q: Our independent practice was recently bought by another firm that has instituted a lot of unwelcome changes. I've tried to put a good face on things for my staff, but they're becoming demoralized and I'm increasingly depressed. My suggestions to the new management seem to fall on deaf ears. How can I help my staff cope with the situation? Is there a way to recapture enjoyment in my job?

A: If there is truly no way to persuade the new higher-ups about the impact of their policies on morale, I think you should get together with your staff and discuss how to make the best of it. You might consider holding a day-long retreat in a peaceful place to talk about the recent changes, identify what each of you has valued about the workplace, and brainstorm about how these qualities might be preserved. Ongoing meetings, both one-on-one and as a group, can help your staff feel more supported and in control of their work.

However, most people don't like working under this kind of stress. Unless you can forge a better relationship with the folks at the top, it may be impossible to stanch the inevitable departure of unhappy employees. If you feel trapped yourself and expect things to get worse, it's time for you, too, to look at other job options. Even if you decide to stay where you are, you'll feel a lot less cornered if you remind yourself that other choices are open to you.

Q: Everything I've done for the past few weeks has been overshadowed by worry about my wife, who is undergoing cancer treatment. I can't sleep for more than a few hours, and yesterday I found a major error I'd made in a client plan (fortunately, it hadn't been presented yet). What should I do? I'm afraid of making more mistakes at work, but if I have to take a leave of absence, I'll go crazy.

A: A great deal of stress is brought on when people feel they have to hide their emotional turmoil and persevere stoically. Men in particular often believe that sharing their fears and worries is a sign of weakness. On the contrary, I think it's an act of courage to be honest about your needs, your failings, and your desire to keep contributing value while you cope with a personal trauma.

So my advice is to open up to as many people at work as you can. Share with them what's happening at home and how anxious and stressed you are, and enlist their support in helping you stay productive at the office.

You may find much more empathy and help than you ever expected. Perhaps some of your cohorts would be willing to carry part of your workload, so you can spend more time with your wife. Perhaps your boss would agree to more time off, with the assurance that you'll be welcome back when this health crisis is better resolved.

I would also counsel you to make time for yourself in the evenings and on weekends, so you don't get too depleted to help your wife. Any restorative practices are good--meditation, exercise, a relaxing hobby, spending time with friends who care about you--whatever keeps you from feeling that you're soldiering on alone through this painful time. I wish quick healing to your wife, and good fortune to you in balancing home and work.

Q: I'm a female administrative assistant who hasn't had a salary increase in two years. A few months ago I prepared some talking points to ask my boss for a raise, but then I heard she'd just turned down a similar request from a very deserving guy in our group. Since then, it's really been stressing me out to work for a boss who doesn't care about good work. Should I look for another job?

A: Once I would have answered this question with a lighter heart, but not since I read a July 30 Washington Post article titled "Salary, Gender and the Social Cost of Haggling." The reporter, Shankar Vedantam, summed up research showing that women in general are less apt than men to negotiate for more money, which contributes to their being paid less. Even more troubling, women who do ask for higher pay often end up being penalized for their assertiveness, no matter what the boss's gender. While I find this residual inequity terribly depressing, the fact remains that we still have to work in this environment, and if possible find a way to thrive in it.

First of all, then, I would ask you to analyze what motivates and nourishes you in your job, besides your salary. What engages your spirit? What makes you feel good about yourself and the work you do? Do you get validation from your boss in non-monetary ways?

You may decide that even if you don't receive a raise, there are ample reasons not to leave the job. But don't let that stop you from looking around for positions you might enjoy in other firms. You'll find out what's available out there, what the going salaries are, and how marketable you are. You may even be offered a position or two. If you keep documenting your work contributions and your reasons for believing that a raise is warranted, you will feel in a much stronger position to approach your boss.

What's the worst that can happen? If she's lukewarm about your prospects for advancement, you'll know you should definitely seek opportunities elsewhere. On the other hand, you may find that she's more willing to give a raise to you than to the fellow you heard about. Or she may agree that you've earned an increase, but feels the firm can't afford it right now.

In this last case, she might be willing to consider a non-financial way to make your position more pleasant. Why not ask for flex time? Or extra vacation time? Or to work from home a few days a week? After all, money per se is often not the best solution for stress.

When you feel pressured or overwhelmed at work or at home, try to familiarize yourself with your own pattern of stress so you can recognize when you're over the edge. Develop a set of strategies that you can apply quickly when you feel yourself approaching the brink. Friends, colleagues, and loved ones can often help you see whether you need to seek support, to re-center yourself, or to change your routine, your attitude, or your scenery. The better you get at managing stress, the better you'll be able to help your clients when life throws them for a loop.

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