Stress & Risk Free Approach to Improving Performance

By: Colin J Coulson-Thomas
Posted: 07/27/2008

Stress at work can be reduced even when difficult jobs have to be done in limited time. Pioneering companies use new tools to help people handle complex situations. Prof. Colin Coulson-Thomas explains how to make the jobs of front line staff less stressful.  


People dealing directly with customers are often required to quickly understand complex situations and develop a bespoke response. The penalties for failure may be high, particularly where they are operating in a regulated sector and being driven to increase their performance.   Pressure to achieve targets, increase productivity or boost sales can turn up the heat. Far too often performance improvement is a question of speeding up the treadmills people feel they are on and requiring them to do more with less. Many corporate responses to greater anxiety, insecurity and ‘time off work’ are limited to addressing symptoms rather than root causes of stress such as the difficulty of doing jobs against tight timescales.   Many directors and boards may be leaving themselves open to future claims for compensation by not adopting known ways of making it much easier for people to understand complex issues and do difficult jobs. People under pressure are often more likely to make mistakes that may have devastating consequences for individuals and organizations.  Yet there is an alternative approach that can be adopted. There are cost effective ways of making front line or ‘customer facing’ jobs less stressful. Building controls and enablers into the processes and support tools used by key workgroups can allow their users to quickly design a bespoke solution for a particular customer or citizen without breaching a quality, regulatory or cost requirement.  By also incorporating critical success factors and the winning ways of high performers - as identified by the Winning Companies; Winning People research program – it is also possible to raise performance at the same time. One can get both higher returns and a lower level of risk. 


The risks of absenteeism break down and burn out are a consequence of contemporary approaches to change and transformation and development and growth. The identification and assessment of such risks is a core element of corporate governance. Directors’ responsibilities include ensuring policies and processes are in place for recognizing relevant risks and taking steps to mitigate or negate their consequences.   Many traditional approaches to risk management have involved layers of checks, reviews and approvals which can increase costs and result in delays. Nervous directors who are conscious of the risks of being sued limit local discretion and require various matters to be referred to senior staff for approval. Reviews are built into business or operating processes. A major bid may be subjected to a succession of reviews covering whether or not to bid, technical issues, and commercial and quality risks. The need to bring people together for review meetings can significantly extend the time required to submit a proposal. Bid team members can spend more time satisfying internal hurdles than they devote to meeting the requirements of prospects.   The delays and overhead costs and the inhibition of entrepreneurial spirit that can result in a risk averse and stagnant corporate culture. Opportunities are lost – particularly for bespoke responses to individual requirements - because directors and senior management are afraid to let go and trust their colleagues to do what they feel is right for their customers. 


Yet there are alternative approaches and new and much more effective ways of avoiding risks. Pioneering companies are building controls into the processes and support tools used by key workgroups. Quite simply those using the latest generation of support tools – for example to design a bespoke solution for a particular customer – cannot generate a proposal that would involve items of equipment that are not compatible or the breach of a regulatory requirement.  Technical, commercial, regulatory and relationship risks in handling complex cases and activities such as developing and costing bespoke solutions, preparing proposals and sales and marketing materials, and purchasing can be avoided by using support tools that make it very easy for a particular and important work group to do a difficult job.   Support tools can also be used to identify areas of risk, help people to assess them and direct them to sources of specialist expertise as and when further help is required. A good example is PROMPT-RPS a support tool developed by Cotoco for the risk management practices of AIG Europe, Clifford Chance, Dames & Moore, Deloitte & Touché, Hill and Knowlton, and Kroll Associates.  The core risk management expertise of the six firms was assembled in the form of a diagnostic tool kit that people could use to carry out an initial risk assessment. The tool provided an overview of the major areas of corporate risk – from finance to reputation – and enabled users to capture basic information about their situation and identify when and where they required specialist counsel.  A tool such as PROMPT-RPS can be distributed via a website or by direct mailing a CD-ROM disc to a target group. Its focus can be upon a problem that recipients are either known or likely to have. Self-assessment checklists can be included and explanations provided. Once an initial review has been completed the results can be emailed to the expert sources of advice the tool suggests for tackling identified problems.   The recipient of a completed review can quickly check that an enquirer has followed a suggested process. A subsequent relationship can be built upon the overview obtained and understanding gained during the self-assessment. The expert will not need to spend time collecting basic information to determine whether or not there is an issue to address and in what area. Use of a tool can provide compliance evidence that risks have been identified, assessed and addressed and that appropriate processes are in place and used. 


Companies such as Avaya, B & Q, Cisco Systems, Eyretel and Friends Provident use a new generation of support tools to make it easy for people to understand complex issues and do difficult jobs, thus reducing stress and related risks. Building critical success factors into the tools and the superior approaches of high achievers can also help ordinary users to substantially improve their performance.  Within the financial services sector there are heavy penalties for miss selling. Friends Provident’s products are sold by independent financial advisers who have traditionally had to submit their proposals for sales literature to head office for approval. Its support tool now enables these business partners to quickly produce their own literature. Because controls are built into the tools users cannot produce sales collateral that lacks the clauses, which are required to be brought to the attention of consumers.  For many companies offering products supplied by other parties, ensuring bought in items satisfy quality requirements can be an expensive process in view of the risks involved in cases of non-compliance. B & Q has used a support tool, which makes it much easier for external suppliers to understand and meet its quality criteria. Use of the tool has enabled it to increase and speed up the flow of new products to its stores.  


The use of support tools to increase understanding of complex issues, boost the productivity of key workgroups and make it easy for people to do difficult jobs has significant implications for directors and boards that are keen to reduce stress and risk as well as increase performance. Directors concerned with a variety of risks in complex and customer facing operations should explore the opportunities for building ways of avoiding risks into appropriate support tools.   One of the findings of the Winning Companies; Winning People research program is that many organizations cannot continue to increase performance simply by squeezing their people and working them harder. In complex and demanding areas many people are at their limit and submitting them to further pressure is likely to be counter productive in terms of risks run, including stress related compensation claims.  The more successful companies are recognizing that a new approach is needed that offers benefits to both employers and employees. Identifying critical success factors for key corporate activities and what high performers do differently and using them to make it easy for people to do tough jobs can increase work group productivity and the personal fulfillment of the individuals concerned.  In conclusion, boards should ensure people in challenging roles are given appropriate support. Directors wishing to increase personal fulfillment at work should explore how support tools that increase understanding of complex issues, boost productivity and make it easy for people to do difficult jobs can also reduce stress. 


What are the key activities that contribute most to your organization’s bottom line performance? 

What are the critical success factors for these activities and how many of them are in place in your organization? 

Do you know who the high performers are within these key areas and what they do differently? 

Have you captured what the top performers do differently and equipped other people to emulate their superior approaches? 

Do you ensure that people who undertake key activities are enabled to do them in the most effective way, i.e. with relevant critical success factors and winning ways in place? 

Are they equipped with support tools that make it easy for them to do difficult jobs and address known risks?

Dr Colin Coulson-Thomas, author of ‘Developing Directors, a handbook for building an effective boardroom team’ and ‘Winning Companies; Winning People’ (both Policy Publications) is an experienced chairman of award winning companies and Professor of Direction and Leadership at the University of Lincoln. He has held various corporate and public sector board appointments, reviewed the processes and practices of over 100 companies, helped over 100 boards to improve board and/or corporate performance, and spoken at over 200 national, international and corporate conferences in 35 countries.



Examples of how job support tools can be used to make it very easy for average performers to adopt winning ways are given in Prof. Coulson-Thomas’ book ‘Winning Companies; Winning People’ (Policy Publications) details of reports presenting critical success factors and winning ways identified by the Winning Companies; Winning People research program and related bespoke benchmarking reports from Prof. Colin Coulson-Thomas  Winning Companies; Winning People, Making it easy for average performers to adopt winning behaviours  


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