TonyAs Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches, we are constantly on the lookout for signs of stress on our teams. It’s common to think of “stress” in negative terms, but in fact it’s not always a bad thing. Stress actually comes in two flavors, and one of them is essential to growth, happiness, and emotional well-being.

Distress makes us feel overwhelmed, depressed, afraid, lethargic, and many other undesirable traits.

Eustress, on the other hand, actually makes us more positive. We go through such experiences happy, fulfilled, confident, and generally feeling better about ourselves.

Distress is what you might imagine you feel falling off a 100-foot cliff. Eustress is what you feel plummeting down a roller coaster. The experiences are closely aligned, but our perception of experiencing each thing is very different.

Those of us who’ve taken on some degree of responsibility to help our teams feel the best they can about themselves need to be sensitive to the early signs of distress, and respond appropriately. A team that is distressed will be less productive, less fulfilled by its work, and interactions can become argumentative or even combative rather than collaborative. Ultimately this results in talented people leaving in search of a better environment and lower quality work. Concentration and creativity suffer.

Correcting Distress

We need to understand the causes of negative stress in the work environment, and just as important we need to understand what corrective measures can be taken. 

We can start by asking the right questions. “Why are you stressed out?” is probably not the ideal ice breaker. A question far more likely to start a meaningful dialog is “What have I done, or what have we as an organization done, to distance you from the joy you used to feel at work?”

There are any number of answers you might get. What I suppose might be a common one is something like “I’m overwhelmed. I can’t meet the schedule expectations. I’m going to fail.” 

A response very much like that came up in a previous company I worked for. The leadership was very confused by this response, because in their minds there were no “schedule expectations,” per se. Which brings up an important point: how we characterize things matters.

People feel distressed when they are threatened. They feel eustressed when they are challenged. Are we characterizing goals as “deadlines” or “targets?” The proper message can make an enormous difference. A deadline is generally threatening (“If I don’t meet it, the sky will fall!”) A target can be challenging (“I will do my best, but there are recovery options if I’m somewhat wide of the bullseye”), but it’s also important to remember that if it’s not framed carefully, a target can also be perceived as threatening (“Why do I feel like I’m standing in front of the target?”)

Supporting the Challenge

We feel positive stress when we grow and learn, when we are given a new responsibility that is still within our reach. We feel eustress when we are confident in ourselves and our abilities, but not bored by something we can do but does not stretch us. Sometimes finding the line between “overwhelming” and “challenging” is a difficult line to draw, but even in the face of such uncertainty, there is one easy thing we can do to keep the stress needle on the positive side of gauge.

Make sure there is proper support. Let the person know they are not solely responsible for the best possible outcome of a challenging task. Let them know where to turn for help, and make sure that help is available when needed. Make sure the person knows with full confidence they have your trust, that you will do whatever it takes to help them succeed. If someone feels like asking for help will be received as a sign of maturity rather than as a nuisance, the chances of success will skyrocket.

As Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches, we need to be careful and consistent about how we pose challenges to our teams. We won’t always get it exactly right. When that happens, own up to it, address it in a positive way with the team’s input, and move on. If you do see the signs of distress on your team, do what is necessary, using the Agile tools at your disposal, to uncover the root cause.

Don’t assume the answer is to remove the team from the thing causing negative stress. Often the best answer might lie in re-framing the challenge in a different way to the team; redirecting the stress to the positive side, offering them opportunities for success that they couldn’t see before, or providing support from unexpected directions. Allow your talented people to see the situation as one that is within their capabilities, rather than out of their control. 

Find the way for your team to envision the roller coaster, rather than the cliff.


How does your team handle distress? What have you tried that works for your team? Join in the conversation below or Contact Us.

Anthony Bopp, Scaled Scrum Facilitator
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