IT Stress: Management, Empathy, And The Kindness Of Strangers

Stress makes us more likely to forget how the other guy feels, which is not good for the modern IT department.

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

January 19, 2015

4 Min Read

If you manage in a group bigger than four or five people, you need to know exactly how stress is going to change the way your own team responds to each other. A new study shows that people have less empathy for strangers when they are stressed than when they aren't. And, whether we like it or not, in big teams or departments, some of the people you manage are total strangers to each other.

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The joint American-Canadian study, conducted in part at McGill University, tested both mice and humans to find that when stress hormones were blocked by drugs, both the rodents and people were more empathic. For instance, students were asked to watch someone experience the pain of holding his or her hand in a bucket of ice. They were likely to rate the pain of the person they watch as high and were likely to touch their own hand in sympathy -- unless they were under stress. Then, they were far less likely to see the pain in a stranger.

So what's an IT manager to do? Invest in a bunch of anti-stress drugs? The good news is the study also found that if the subject played a fun video game with the stranger before the test, they were more likely to be sympathetic. The researchers believe that a simple stress reducer was enough to make a person more empathic.

With increasingly dispersed IT colleagues, often working across time zones and even across oceans, your own teams are often going to be strangers. Even if they aren't, IT workers are being asked more than ever to be part of cross-functional teams, to work more closely with "the business," and to otherwise work with strangers.

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We often advise CIOs and IT managers that the best way for IT to act is to feel the business's pain. It isn't a good time in the state of IT management for your employees to lack empathy. If they do, you're liable to hear them make fun of other departments, care less about serving them, and do less to actively reach out to teams to serve the business.

And if you happen to serve clients outside the office, the risk is even greater. Some people may not consider someone who works at the same company to be a stranger. But when a stressed employee goes into a client's office, all they're seeing are strangers.

[What to know more about the hazards of stress in the workplace? Read Burned Out Workers Are Dangerous.]

Of course, you can't always invite your clients or line-of-business executives in for a quick video game tournament. You're going to have to find a way for your team to manage stress. The American Institute of Stress says 25% of people view their job as their main source of stress in their lives. Forty percent of workers reported that their work is "very or extremely stressful." Eight in 10 report at least some stress at work. Shockingly, 14% say they have felt like striking a coworker.

Managing workloads will help. Taking breaks, too. Encourage music and fun at work (in reasonable doses). Most importantly, you need to help your employees be aware of this issue. It is easy to pass this kind of thing off as office gossip and team-versus-team rivalry. But there will be times you need your team to buckle down and focus on the needs of someone else. Encourage them to listen to fun music on the drive to the client's place. Tell them to find their happy place before the big meeting. Just being aware of the effect of stress might be enough to overcome its ugliest manifestations.

In other words, have a little empathy for your team. Make them happy when you need them happy the most, and they'll put their best foot forward when you need them cooperating the most. What do you think? Is empathy an important part of your management tool belt? How do you de-stress your IT team? Do you think your team could use a little more empathy for the strangers inside and outside of your company? Comment below.

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About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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