as a manager, do I need to hide my stress from my employees?

A reader writes:

I work a fairly high-stress management position at a regional theater company. It’s the kind of position that comes with frequent six-day weeks, not a huge paycheck, a lot of customer interface, and the responsibility of a regularly shifting staff of seasonal employees. I’m young for the position, but certainly qualified and hard-working. I’ve received praise for my customer service and my problem-solving skills from my supervisors. In general, I think they’re more than grateful that someone has stuck around in a job that has a history of burning people out. As for me, I’m pretty grateful to have accomplished this position at this stage in my career and generally find satisfaction in it, although on a day-to-day basis I vacillate a bit more on the “loving it” scale.

However, I’m concerned about how I comport myself as a manager. I don’t have much management experience, I’m not much older than the majority of my staff (sometimes younger!), and I have a friendly demeanor that I worry sometimes confuses my staff’s perception of “me as a manager” with “me as a peer.” More worrisome than that, however, I’ve gotten the sense that I sometimes give off an aura of “overworked/stressed” that shakes my staff’s confidence in me. Or rather (possibly worse), it gives them the impression that I need their sympathy and help. For example, I have one employee who I’ve had multiple discussions with regarding her habit of putting her hand on my shoulder and saying “Aw, what’s wrong?” or “Oh my God, you seem really tense!” (I think the last and firmest conversation a couple of months ago put a stop to it.) On the other end of the spectrum, I have another employee who apologizes every time she interrupts my work with a (completely valid!) question.

I don’t want to create this kind of energy or foster a negative perception of me. It’s very true that I am not infrequently stressed (evidently I’m not hiding it as well as I thought) and I’m a human being. I think trying to white-knuckle smile my way through will come across as totally disingenuous and do nothing to foster the relaxed, yet focused/fast-paced atmosphere I’m striving to create. What are some good strategies for finding a happy medium of acknowledging stress and creating a positive atmosphere? What’s my obligation as a manager in terms of conveying/hiding how I’m feeling?

Well, ideally, part of your job as a manager is to minimize stress and drama to the extent that you can. It’s pretty tough to work for a boss who’s frequently visibly stressed out. You could be inadvertently signaling to your staff all sorts of things that you don’t want to signal — like that they need to worry that things are falling apart, or that they’ll be letting you down if they take time off because things are always so hectic, or even that you can’t handle the job.

As a manager, you’re basically on a stage. Your staff is going to pay a huge amount of attention to what you say and the energy you give off. Your comments and your demeanor are going to carry enormous weight — much more than they did before you became a manager — and so you have to carry yourself with that in mind.

That doesn’t mean that you need to have a Stepford-Wife-ish sunshiny demeanor at all times — but if people are asking what’s wrong and saying “Oh my God, you seem really tense,” that’s a sign that you do need to rein it in.

So — what are the things that you’re doing that are giving people that impression? Are you always so rushed with people that you don’t have time for more leisurely conversation, ever? Are you regularly talking about your stress and workload and making comments like “I don’t know how I’m going to get this all done” or “I’ll be here all night”? Are you saying other negative things about your job or your workload? Are you projecting a “the sky is falling” vibe?

I don’t know exactly what behaviors they might be noticing, but I’d start by reflecting on that and seeing if you can nail it down and then consciously work to not to do those things.

If you’re stumped and don’t know what you’re doing that’s giving people this impression, it could be worthing talking one-on-one with a couple of the people who you have the best rapport with and asking them about it. You could say, “I’m getting the sense that people think I’m overstressed and in need of sympathy. I don’t want to give that impression, and I’m trying to figure out what I’m doing that’s conveying it. I respect your opinion and I wonder if you have thoughts on what I might be doing that’s making people worry about my stress load.” (Of course, you want your tone here to be calm and curious — not frustrated or stressed, since that would just add to the problem.)

Also, I want to be clear: You’re allowed to be human. You’re allowed to have days where you’re tired or too busy for anything but emergencies. The issue is if it’s your regular mode of operating — that’s when it starts worrying people that either the organization is in chaos or you are.

Because of that, one of the most important things you can do for your staff as their manager is to project calm. Not in a crazily-removed-from-reality kind of way (which can make people think you’re out of touch), but in a genuine, “yes, there’s a lot going on, but things will be fine” way. If that really wouldn’t be authentic for you most of the time, that’s a flag that you might need to reconsider how you’re approaching the role (both mentally and practically), and maybe even whether it’s a good fit for you. But before you worry about that, try making a deliberate effort to do the stuff above and give it some time to see if it changes the dynamic.

{ 117 comments… read them below }

  1. Jwal*

    How are you responding when people come to you with questions? There’s a lady I’ve worked with who would sigh, run her hands through her hair, and just general project an aura of being frustrated. Even though she didn’t say anything to that regard, her general demeanor just projected stress.

    One thing I would say is that apologising for interrupting someone (unless it’s an overly profuse apology) is often the person just being polite. I’d always apologise when interrupting someone, or say “can I ask you a quick question?”. It wouldn’t necessarily be a reflection of my perception of their stress level.

    But I am a Brit, so maybe it’s cultural!

    1. Terra*

      I was going to say that apologizing for interrupting someone was generally just a manners/politeness thing and I’m American. No offense to the LW but maybe you need to reconsider your norms and what’s worth stressing about in general? It might help with both dealing with your staff and with your job stress.

    2. the_scientist*

      Your first point is such a good one. People are really sensitive to body language/general demeanor and will totally pick up on that, even if you’re not running around like a headless chicken yelling about how stressed you are (exaggeration, obviously). Also, if you act put upon or annoyed every time someone asks you a question, people are likely going to act apologetically, so this could be why you’re frequently getting apologized to.

      My partner has a bad habit of frequently sighing in an exasperated manner- particularly after I ask him to do something. When we first started living together, I called him on it- he lives in the house too, he doesn’t get to act put upon when expected to do a reasonable share of household labour. We talked about it and he explained that it’s genuinely just a bad habit. He’s not actually annoyed by the request, it’s just become an almost unconscious response. And we actually had a really productive conversation about how that type of reaction is interpreted by others, and the potential professional consequences if he’s sighing in exasperation every time his boss asks him for something….so now he’s working on breaking this habit. So, TL;DR, be extra mindful of how you respond when people are asking you questions or dropping by your office- you may be projecting an air of stress/frustration without knowing it.

      1. Letter Writer*

        I’m so interested, how is he doing this? I totally fall into that habit–I rarely notice that I’ve let out a big whoosh of breath unless someone points it out to me. Not when I’m talking to people, but definitely in moments when I’m quiet/thoughtful.

        1. Daisy Steiner*

          I do that! I sigh when I’m relaxed or after I’ve just eaten a big meal. People are always like ‘What’s wrong??’, and I’m like ‘No, I sigh when I’m content!’

        2. the_scientist*

          Honestly, it’s really hard! Breaking any habit is. I point it out to him at home, every time. I’m sure it’s kind of annoying for him, but he has also said that it helps him be conscious of it. Now that he’s aware of it, pausing before responding to a question/request and taking a quiet deep breath helps, I think. He just has to try to catch himself before he lets out the sigh!

        3. Total Rando*

          my whole family does this, and i get comments on it quite regularly… i just don’t know how to stop it. It’s a combo of we’re all heavy breathers and that’s my natural response to a lot of things from “yum, that was delicious” to “okay time to switch tasks” to “it’s only 1pm…”

        4. auntie_cipation*

          I sigh a lot too, and wasn’t aware of it until a co-worker noticed it. I think it was purely an oxygen thing — I would do it as I arrived at my desk after bounding up the stairs, or as Daisy mentioned, just after a meal. At home I also notice myself sighing as a signal of “ok, that’s done; now what’s next?” Kind of like brushing my hands off. Not a frustrated or overloaded thing at all, but certainly it gives that impression to other people.

    3. Liana*

      I’m American and I do the same thing sometimes – I think this one thing on it’s own is totally normal, although combined with everything else the OP mentioned might mean her staff feel nervous about asking questions.

    4. Letter Writer*

      I generally agree, I tend to preface interruptions with “Sorry, I have a quick question,” but this one employee would repeat it after the question and with such a hangdog look! Definitely seemed like she genuinely felt like a nuisance and I really don’t want my employees to feel that way. They’re great and their questions are necessary!

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Have you told her that? That’s good feedback to give her, and you could point that she doesn’t want to seem like she’s apologizing for doing her job.

        1. Letter Writer*

          When it happens, I do say something like “No need to apologize, this is an important question and I’m glad you asked.” But maybe this is something I could fold into my performance review of her? “I really appreciate your willingness to learn about the job, you ask good questions and I hope you continue that!”

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Well, you’re kind of hiding the message with that second snippet of language there — I would be more direct about the exact piece you want to convey, which is that she doesn’t need to apologize when asking questions and that it’s just part of doing her job. (But yes, also praise her for doing it.)

  2. AthenaC*

    I actually have a related issue – when I’m stressed I don’t actually feel stressed but everyone around me can someone tell that I’m stressed. Obviously I change somehow since everyone can tell, but I’ve gone through my behavior as much as possible and I legitimately have no idea what it would be.

    So all that is to say – you’re not the only one who unintentionally gives off “stressed” vibes, and I look forward to reading everyone’s brilliant advice.

      1. AthenaC*

        Not at the moment – I just changed jobs and I haven’t had any stressful situations yet. I really didn’t work with too many people at my previous job, and at the job before that I did try to ask people – several times, and wasn’t given anything helpful other than “well you just seem stressed.”

        1. Colorado CrazyCatLady*

          I have a friend who’s like this and it really is hard to put my finger on but I can always tell when she’s stressed, sometimes before she even realizes it. I think I’m very in tune with even subtle changes in body language, tone of voice, how quickly someone is walking, moods, etc. and I’m sure there are other people like me. Whenever she asks me why I think she’s stressed though, I don’t have concrete examples because it’s all very subtle and hard to articulate.

          1. Revanche*

            Same, I can spot the signs of movement and tone changes when someone’s stressed before they consciously realize they’re stressed. It hasn’t been helpful to point it out, though. It feels it’s like telling someone who’s angry to relax!

    1. Letter Writer*

      Thank you so much, it’s always helpful to know that I’m not alone in this. I know that one of my habits to focus on is my unconscious sighing. I don’t do it when I’m talking to people, but I’ve had friends point out that in quiet moments I’ll occasionally let out a big sigh–something I rarely notice myself!

      1. LAC*

        I’m an unconscious sigher, too, and I haven’t been totally able to break the habit. I’ve found when people ask me what’s wrong when they notice me giving a heavy sigh in a moment of quiet, responding with a smile and a breezy, “Oh, nothing! Just decompressing.” to be helpful. Of course, you have to be sincere when you do this for it to work, but if you are being honest it usually helps coach them on how to respond. Obviously this isn’t a perfect solution, but it might help mitigate some of the “Omg! Stressed!” vibes you might be giving off.

    2. J.B.*

      So I sometimes have people commenting that I seem stressed when I hadn’t noticed it myself. The only common factor is that usually when it happens my mind seems on overdrive. I’m processing through information (like doing a long list of tasks before leaving, or addressing a really complicated technical problem.) I also have some pretty consistent physical reactions to stress that I notice after the fact of left shoulder rising, short shallow breaths. I don’t know if taking stock of how your body feels when someone makes that comment would help you, but that is typical for me.

    3. Jillociraptor*

      I relate to this a lot. It takes me a really long time to identify and feel my feelings, but my body language and demeanor sometimes changes well before I can process those feelings internally. I’ve been working a lot on mindfulness–paying attention to my body’s and mind’s signals without any judgment or analysis, just literally paying attention to, is my heart racing? do I feel tightness in my chest? is my stomach dropping? So that I can identify my feelings faster.

      To circle this back kind of poetically, I know a lot of my challenges with this come from having a manager who was constantly frazzled (but AGGRESSIVELY cheerful), which put a lot of pressure on me as her right hand person to always appear calm, in control, like someone had the reins on the situation.

      The biggest challenge of leadership, in my opinion, is finding the right balance between being a real, authentic person, and recognizing, as Alison says, that you’re on a stage, and you have to be mindful of the stories that people will spin about your performance.

  3. Q*

    Be the swan! Your feet may be paddling like crazy beneath the water but on the surface you appear to be effortless gliding along.

    I learned this in a management training class and it stuck with me. It seems corny at first but I often find myslef repeating “be the swan” when I am stressed.

    1. Letter Writer*

      I love “be a swan!” My position often involves rushing around before curtain time, trying to herd the audience into their seats, so I think this will be a really helpful visual for me to project in those hurried thirty minute spans.

      1. nonprofit ny*

        This may be a minor suggestion, but with stuff like this, can you enlist others on your team to help? It seems like it would be much less stressful (and also project a more professional vibe for your company) if you have several staff members quietly circulating among the crowd asking them to take their seats (I’m assuming you don’t have a loudspeaker to make a general announcement). I wonder if things like that could apply in other areas–are you doing too much yourself?

        1. Mallory Janis Ian*

          Good suggestion; this is what I’ve seen when I’m at the theater. The house lights dim a few minutes before the performance, and then several staff members quietly circulate and remind people to take their seats (especially those who seem to be engrossed in conversation and not making any visible movement toward wrapping things up).

    2. ATXFay*

      I’ve always referred to it as “ducking”. A duck looks smooth as it goes across the water, but it’s little feet are going 1000 miles a minute. Love that I’m not the only one who refers to this concept!

  4. Katie the Fed*

    Think of yourself like a flight attendant. When there’s turbulence on the flight, I always look at the flight attendant. If they’re looking worried, I’m freaking out. If they’re calm I know everything’s normal.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        Ugh, I’m from tornado alley too, and East Coast people are just awful about handling tornadoes. We had a close one a few years ago and the sky turned that shade of green/black and it was prime tornado weather, and everyone at work was running to to the windows to look. I yelled at them and told them to get to an interior hallway.

        1. Mpls*

          Tourists at National Parks, wanting pictures with the wildlife. This is not a petting zoo! Stay away from things that can kill you!

        2. TootsNYC*

          from Iowa, not far from the Nishnabotna River, which was its own little mini Tornado Alley.
          That green color was the sign to clear off the cellar door.

        3. Kelly White*

          I’m from New England and I was visiting my brother in the Midwest, and they had a tornado watch/warning, and I was fascinated by the green sky! I did hustle down to the basement though- but I still remember that green sky! It was so amazing!!

        4. ATXFay*

          Hubby & I are from NY and just moved to TX, where we get the occasional tornado warning (and a few touchdowns since we’ve been here). I just looked up photos of what you all meant by the green sky.. and now I know! AAM is informational in so many ways! I would’ve just stood and looked at the sky, dumbfounded.

          1. TootsNYC*

            I moved to NYC (natch) and have now and then seen that green sky. I always panic (a bit), and everyone else is all, “eh.” Once it was the classic Pre-Tornado Green, and nobody around me could understand.

      2. Captain Bigglesworth*

        This made me chuckle. I’m originally from Oklahoma, but my partner is from Colorado. His first tornado season in Tornado Alley was highly entertaining to me. It wasn’t even that bad. The green skies just freaked him out.

    1. Joseph*

      Exactly. You see the same thing with professional first responders (firefighters, EMS, etc). In fact, they are specifically trained to always seem cool and in command – because the instant the public sees them lose control, citizens start to panic and the entire situation snowballs.

    2. Anonymous Educator*

      Former classroom teacher here—with a few rare exceptions, almost all teachers have to project this level of calm as well to their students. Obviously that’s especially true in a crisis (like a mass shooting in a school), but even in everyday class periods, teachers need to exude a calm authority, even if they’re excited or angry or whatever—they still cannot appear to be stressed.

      1. TootsNYC*

        Mom here: “ooh, look blood! That’s interesting. Come here and let me take a look at you.”

        But never “OH MY GOD, YOU’RE BLEEDING!!”

        1. Mallory Janis Ian*

          Ha! When I was a new mother and my firstborn was a toddler, we were in the park and a goose sidled up slowly, slowly and stretched out its neck and pinched my daughter! It pinched her on the waist where her diaper was, so it didn’t hurt her at all, and it didn’t scare her, either. She didn’t have any reaction at all until I started freaking out and screaming, “Aaaah, you goose!! You pinched my baby!!!” Only when she saw me freaking out did my daughter burst into tears.

          1. Anne*

            Kids take so many cues from their parents! I always try my best not to react if my 2 year old falls down in front of me. There have been several times he falls and immediately looks at me and if I don’t freak out he just picks himself up and moves on. He’s much less likely to cry if he doesn’t get a response.

          2. junipergreen*

            Lol! Geese are jerks, like parenting is not hard enough!

            This is an oddly good metaphor for management though…

      2. Shark Lady*

        I’m also a former classroom teacher, and this is so true. My best teaching days happened when I was calm and confident. But days where I was frustrated/excited/insert emotion here? The kids picked up on it super fast, and I spent most of my time putting out fires instead of teaching.

  5. OriginalYup*

    I’ve always appreciated my bosses who appeared to be calm as their general baseline. It made me feel steady under their command, as it were. They weren’t robotic no-emotion people, they just did a good job at seeming reasonable and pragmatic. Which made me trust that they could differentiate between real and imagined emergencies, and that they were more likely to have my back in tough situations, rather than throw me under the bus whilst screaming and flailing. Conversely, my two worst bosses ever were both emotional roller coasters—I never knew whether I was going to encounter tears, shouting, or icy silence, and that uncertainty is unbelievable stressful to work under every day. (Not that you’re doing this–I’m just differentiating what it felt like to work at each end of the spectrum.)

    So I don’t think it’s about white-knuckling through bad situations and being all “everything’s fine! everything’s okay! Just ignore the alarms and the smoke!”. It’s about projecting a general sense of steadiness and consistency that will (a) create and maintain a pleasant working environment for those on your team, (b) reinforce your authority as a leader, and (c) lead by example in helping others to remain calm and work through problems rather than spiraling off into panic. If your team sees you handle a rocky situation with aplomb, they can draw on that for themselves as a positive model, which is a great way to build a good culture at work.

    1. Silver Radicand*

      Agreed with this comment.

      A couple things I learned are:
      1. Make it a point to check in with folks when it isn’t crazy and do an after-action review, see if there was anything we could have done, had in place, etc. that would have helped when it was busy. Genuinely seeking my team’s input can often help let them know I am there to help work through the problems.
      2. How you end a conversation matters. Rushing the last sentence or two can make the whole conversation seem rushed. Instead of cutting a few seconds off, finish your conversation with the pleasantries and it will seem like you did Exactly What You Planned. To paraphrase Gandalf, a manager never ends a conversation late, nor does he end it early, he also ends it precisely when he means to.
      3. Finally, my folks frequently apologize for “interrupting” me when they step into my office, so I make sure to communicate by my tone and language that I don’t view them as an interruption. Or if I genuinely am in the middle of something I can’t interrupt (work block, near-term deadline, etc), I ask if it can wait until X time later that day so they know I’m not resenting them for the interruption and am open to help them once I can.

      I hope these help.

      1. TootsNYC*

        Also, plan for crises, and communicate that plan.

        If you’ve got experience in your job, you will know what could go wrong. And you will know what 2 or 3 things you can do if/when that happens.

        Communicate those things beforehand. That will build calm for everyone.

        also–for stuff that’s rushed, plot out timelines, with realistic or accurate times.

        And, properly identify crises. It’s not a crisis if the audience is a little late getting in their seats, usually. The curtain can go up a minute or two later (If you’ve got a pit orchestra, work w/ the conductor to be sure there’s music to fill, but usually their is), or stragglers can find their seats in the semidarkness.

        Automate and simplify what you can–can you use lights to shoo the audience to their seats, so it’s simplified for you?

  6. Gandalf the Nude*

    OP, I’m curious if any of your stress is trickle down from those around/above you. Theaters by their very nature attract a very dramatic sort of people, and that tends to be good for the art side but not the business side (which I assume is where you are). Some theater companies are good about keeping them separate where necessary, but plenty others let the drama pervade everything. If yours is one of the latter, there’s probably little you can actually do about it. It’s just the culture where everything is larger than life and you either need to find a way to thrive on it or burn out like the others.

    1. Letter Writer*

      You’re not wrong, the industry definitely tends to attract and encourage dramatic people (on both the employee and customer sides). So it’s hard not to let that get to me sometimes. My job, while administrative, involves working closely with the audience which puts me in the theatre and on a short timeline oftentimes (i.e. curtain is at 8 PM and it’s 7:55 and everyone is still in the lobby and not in their seats!)

      But on the whole, I think I have some pretty good role models for the calming aura I’m trying to achieve for myself.

      1. Aunt Vixen*

        I would swear I used to work at your theatre if I didn’t know that probably every theatre is like that.

      2. Mallory Janis Ian*

        Isn’t the problem of seating the audience near curtain time handled by dimming the house lights? Or are people just lingering after they’ve been signaled to wrap things up and be seated?

        1. Aunt Vixen*

          In my experience you can flash the lights and make announcements on the PA and there will always be people who genuinely believe you won’t start without them and get pretty shirty when you start to close the doors while they’re still hanging around in the lobby (eighteen minutes into a fifteen-minute intermission). When I was a house manager we used to ask subscribers to think of curtain time as wheels-up on an outbound flight: not only could we not hold the plane show for them, but we were also not likely to be able to sneak them in once the performance was under way.

          Since time immemorial.

          1. TootsNYC*

            I totally believe that’s true. The secret is to not care whether those audience members get shirty. They’re not right, and you’ve been clear and polite. Now it’s all their problem; don’t make it yours.

          2. Letter Writer*

            That’s an amazing metaphor and I will absolutely use that in the future! It is a small theatre (around 400 seats) so it’s often difficult to get people to their appropriate seats after the show is underway.

        2. Letter Writer*

          We flicker the lights and use bells to signal curtain time, but people do tend to linger! However, that’s just an example of the sort of “slow-fast-slow” pace of the job for me and my employees. Immediately after the doors are clsoed, things calm down considerably until intermission when it’s fast-fast-fast again.

      3. TootsNYC*

        some of it is just not caring. Who cares is four or five people are not in their seats? Flicker the lights, make an announcements, and then don’t “own” their problem anymore.

        Work w/the in-house people to be sure there’s some transition level, so stragglers finding their seats don’t disrupt things too much, and then let it go. It’ll be fine, honest it will.

        1. Addie Bundren*

          When the most entitled audience members are also major donors, something like this can, truly, turn into the theater’s problem. It may or may not generally be the case with the letter writer’s theater, but pissing off the wrong person in the nonprofit/arts world…it’s not always as simple as “you missed the flight, goodbye.”

          1. TootsNYC*

            true, but then you should know who those people are, and have a specific manner that you aim right at them, “Please help me here, you insider, you.”

        2. Marvel*

          I get where you’re coming from here, but as someone else who works in theatre, it is literally the house manager’s job to care about this sort of thing. I’m not sure advising “not caring” is really realistic or helpful; it’s like advising a financial manager to just “not care” about the company’s revenue.

  7. misspiggy*

    I had two awesome managers who were in a very stressful role. The less awesome of the two would let her voice carry the stress she was under and rarely smiled. Although she was great in many ways, she was quite scary to be around.

    The more awesome manager would adopt a cheerful tone and a smiling, open face when talking to you, which clearly signalled you had her entire attention and interest. She would turn her whole body towards you, even if she was talking from her desk to yours. We humans are very simple animals in some ways, and these things make a big difference.

    1. misspiggy*

      In fact, thinking about it, what she did was pause, turn herself towards you, smile, open her mouth, take a breath and speak. As well as making her sound more cheerful, it gave you a chance to prepare for a positive interaction.

      1. F.*

        I really like this suggestion! I am the type that sometimes (too often) opens my mouth before I think. Being cynical by nature and experience, I tend to come across as rather negative at times. I need to try to adopt this idea. Besides, I’ve read that smiling even when you don’t really feel like it can help raise your mood.

      2. Letter Writer*

        That’s super helpful! I think I tend to sigh unconsciously (NEVER when I’m talking to people, but definitely in quiet moments) and taking a second to breath and smile would make a big improvement. Thank you!

        1. Mallory Janis Ian*

          I used to have people who thought I was constantly sighing, but I realized that what I was doing was holding my breath when I was stressed. When I started monitoring myself, I noticed that I’d be working on my computer under a stressful deadline or with umpteen other things that I also needed to be doing, and I’d unconsciously be holding my breath until I had to breathe in with a gasp. My shoulders would also be tense and kind of hunched up near my ears. I had to consciously start making myself breath normally and put my shoulders down and back.

      3. Snazzy Hat*

        I had a retail manager who had a similar positive switch. She seemed truly thankful that she could direct her attention toward you and away from the crappy event of the present or recent past.

  8. Lillian McGee*

    I just want to throw in that in addition to all the reasons Alison gave, you need to take control of your stress for the sake of your health! Stress (especially prolonged bouts of it) can wreak havoc on just about every system in your body. If at all possible, you should consider not just addressing the appearance of stress, but try to reduce your stress overall.

  9. AVP*

    As a relatively young film PM I’ve had some experience with this. It’s something you’ll improve on with time and more shows under your belt, but some strategies I’ve found are:

    – take a deep breath before answering questions. I often projected stress when someone would come up to me and ask a random question because they have one specific job to focus on (so they know what they’re talking about, but you might not). So, taking a second to reframe and focus on that one person and their need before you answer is worth the time it takes.

    – if you’re about to send an email that you feel tense about – wait 5 minutes and re-read it, softening if you need to.

    – make sure your general management techniques are on point – if they’re not, that will exacerbate any stress problems among your crew.

    – try to spend some relaxing time with your staff. Have a meal before or after a show, or a wrap party, or coffee in the mornings if you have time. 15 minutes a day for chitchat or jokes can go very far.

    – schedule enough time to really get things done (ie., be realistic with your time, not over-optimistic)

    – prep the hell out of things. More work upfront means a calmer situation down the road.

    – my yoga teacher told me, “stress is often about ego.” I try to remember that and take “but what will they think of ME” out of an equation that I feel stressed about,. If you’re dealing with people fairly, things will work out.

    – My boss has a saying: “There is no such thing as an entertainment emergency. If you have a knife sticking out of your throat, that’s an emergency. Nothing we do here is at that level.” Which is true – I think in entertainment we tend to think “oh my god, the show won’t go on, we’ll have dead air or be late, the audience will know, the investors will see…” but you know what? People forget about that stuff ten minutes later, as long as it’s not happening repeatedly. Putting too much pressure on a situation in order for it to be “perfect” sometimes comes at a human cost that isn’t worth it.

    This may sound weird but I was inspired by Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Mind of A Chef” episode (on PBS) – I thought her approach to managing a tiny but intense restaurant kitchen and staff looked like what I wanted my sets to be like.

    1. TootsNYC*

      ooh, I want to go watch that. I just read “Work Clean: What Great Chefs Can Teach Us About Organization” by Dan Charnas, and it was inspiring.

    2. Letter Writer*

      Thank you so much for the perspective! There definitely is no such thing as entertainment emergency. All of these notes are helpful reminders–especially “stress is often about ego,” I very much fall into the worry-cycle of what people think about me and that doesn’t need to be the case.

    3. LBK*

      People forget about that stuff ten minutes later, as long as it’s not happening repeatedly.

      Agreed. I see a lot of plays, and almost always there’s a moment where I think “Oh great, that forgotten line/missed cue/mic glitch is totally going to stick in my brain and be the only thing I can remember about this show.” To this day, there’s only 2 shows where that ended up being true, and both times it was a rude audience member that ruined the experience, not anything about the performance.

    4. Kathryn*

      I’m late to the conversation, but since you mentioned waiting before sending an email you felt tense about (always good advice of course) I wanted to share my little technique for making sure I’m not accidentally sending a rude email: I compose the email, then send it to myself. Something about hitting send and then reading it as a recipient helps me gain clarity. Of course, since emails are kept on the server, I don’t use it as an opportunity to vent–no swearing or abusive language, nothing I would actually get in trouble for. But for a communication that might be a little “rough,” I find this helps me.

  10. LQ*

    The comment about having conversations to get the person to stop saying you look tense is weird to me. I’m super on board with stop touching me. But stop saying “you look tense”? That doesn’t mean the problem goes away, it just means the person isn’t commenting on it anymore.

    That person who picks up on your tension and others on your team will still think you are tense, they will just not tell you and alter their behavior in other ways.

    Again I’m super on board with stop touching me. But it sounds like you wanted the person to stop saying that, not that you aren’t stressed, not that you don’t look tense, or that you aren’t tense it’s just your face. But stop saying it, that strikes me as odd.

    1. Sparkly Librarian*

      What’s the point of commenting on it, though? I’d find it frustrating if someone commented on how I looked — tense, tired, happy, hungry, etc. — at work. I got the impression from the letter that the OP was concerned about condecension or “(s)mothering” behavior from that employee, and therefore shut it down before it could undermine her reputation on the job.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yeah, I’d be pretty annoyed if an employee kept telling me how tense I looked. I’d use it as useful data about how people were perceiving me, certainly, but I’d also ask her to cut it out (if it were more than once or twice).

        1. LQ*

          Maybe I’m not cut out for a high stress world (which I know) but a job where my boss was always stressed and then told someone to stop saying anything about it would make me look for a new job fast.

          I know that my boss had a chunk of several months where he was extremely stressed and I just avoided him for basically the whole time. He certainly never had time for me and that was always clear because his stress was so evident. That doesn’t seem like the kind of workplace you usually endorse.

          Yes we are human and yes it happens but just shut up doesn’t seem like good management for dealing with a team of people who can tell you are stressed and are responding to that.

          1. Murphy*

            But no one is suggesting that “shut up” is the management technique here. It’s fair to ask your staff to not comment on it repeatedly, but the advice here is to find a way to manage that stress. It’s not “stop talking about how stressed I am” its “Find a way to manage your stress so your staff aren’t feeling it.”

            1. Mallory Janis Ian*

              It’s kind of both: find a way to manage your stress so that people aren’t feeling it, and letting the employee who keeps commenting on it know that her comments to date are enough on the subject.

          2. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I wonder if we’re picturing different conversations. The OP says her employee on multiple occasions put her hand on her shoulder and said “Aw, what’s wrong?” or “Oh my God, you seem really tense!” That’s pretty boundary-crossing and undermining, at least the way I’m picturing it. It would be reasonable to say, “I’m fine, thank you” a few times and then if it continued, to say, “I appreciate your concern for me, but I think you’re misinterpreting something on my end, and I’d rather you not continue to make those comments.” You could also, depending on the context, ask if there was something you were doing that was stressing her out.

            1. LQ*

              Yeah that’s not at all what I was picturing, I was picturing something that was more of a we are going to sit down and have a disciplinary kind of meeting about this one specific thing. As an in the moment thing it would make more sense.

      2. LQ*

        I’d guess that the person who is doing it is trying to show empathy or concern. I wouldn’t, but I’m basically a robot. I would worry a bit that telling someone to stop doing that would just show that that level of stress was what was expected. Everything is always this stressful so just get used to it.
        Though much of that would depend on the actual conversation.

      3. Mallory Janis Ian*

        Exactly. Having the employee constantly draw attention to a level of stress that the OP may or may not be feeling isn’t helpful for OP’s image management with other employees. Besides that, it is annoying to have someone constantly commenting on how stressed/tired/tense one looks; it’s a boundary that needs to be drawn with the employee.

        1. Letter Writer*

          I definitely found that employee’s comments to be unhelpful and irritating (a friend pointed out to me that I don’t even like it when people close to me frame questions about my well-being in that way), but in fairness to that particular employee, I think they’ve worked hard to cut down on that behavior since my last talk with them that essentially amounted to, “While I appreciate your concern for me, you’re frequently misinterpreting my tone. I’m not tense, I’m focused. And even if I was tense, asking if I’m okay is not helpful. What is helpful, which you do and I really appreciate it, is when you focus on the task at hand.”

          They’re a fairly happy-go-lucky, friendly person (which works really well for the customer service demands of the job) so I think it’s difficult for them to understand other personality types in terms of how much friendliness and caring people are comfortable with. However, they have demonstrated that my feedback was heard which is good.

        2. TootsNYC*

          plus it just eats up time and mental energy. It’s distracting–and at a time when things are stressful, that’s just really not helpful, to have time and energy diverted from your main focus.

    2. TootsNYC*

      for one thing, if someone has to say it that often, then it’s probably a quirk of theirs. And they are drawing attention to something I’d rather they didn’t. Other people see and hear it, and it reframes the entire conversation. Plus, *I* see and hear it.

      Plus, if someone has that sort of quirk, often (because it’s all about them, really, not about you), they may not be completely accurate, or they may be exaggerating.

      Sure, people I work with look stressed. I don’t comment on it, because I figure they’ll handle it. Our focus is on what we’re doing, not on how one person is feeling. Especially when that person is focused on what we’re doing.

  11. Female-type Person*

    I’m an attorney. In a volunteer mom role related to a kid sport, where dealing with upset or concerned parents was a big part of the job, I often had other, non-upset parents who observed me handle this approach me afterwards all, OMG, conflict, are you ok? And dealing with the upset or concerned parents was a situation I didn’t even register as a conflict, and I certainly wasn’t upset by it, it was just what I did and moved on. (Thank you, first year of law school!) Managing other people’s perception of stress I wasn’t experiencing over conflict I wasn’t experiencing became part of the gig, which is sort of entertaining. I started to cheerfully say, “A problem that can be solved is not a problem!” rather frequently, and it leveled off. You might think of a similar catchphrase.

    1. TootsNYC*

      These people were probably projecting massively. They were predicting the reaction they would expect themselves to have, and projecting it on you.

      They probably weren’t paying any attention at all to the specifics of how you communicated or what mood-indicators you were giving off. It was all about them. (Most things are “all about me,” for most of us–to some degree.)

      The funny thing is that if they had been in your role, Female-type Person, they probably would not have been as stressed as they THINK they would have been.

    2. Government Worker*

      A few years I was the volunteer leader for a big all-day community event through my church. A woman who had run the event in years prior kept coming up to me to commiserate, essentially, and it was clear she thought I must be completely stressed out because that had been her experience.

      But for unrelated reasons I had recently resolved to complain less about unimportant things. I got a lot of comments about how much work the event must have been, and I started responding to them by saying that yes, it was a lot of work but I was getting to know a lot of people and it was really helping me feel like a part of the community. Or that it was just so nice to be able to raise money for a cause I cared about. Or other positive things that sounded like I was happy to be doing what I was doing, and that I even felt lucky to be able to do it. And the funny thing was that I think that talking about it in that way really helped me re-frame the stress in my head and feel much less stressed and more positive about the day.

      OP, can you master a wry smile and an offhand comment about herding cats when you’re talking about those pre-show moments? Or something else that’s not at a high stress register? Don’t talk about these things as if they’re so incredibly high stakes, and that will help you with the attitude that AVP talks about. I love the line that there’s no such thing as an entertainment emergency.

      1. Snazzy Hat*

        But for unrelated reasons I had recently resolved to complain less about unimportant things. I got a lot of comments about how much work the event must have been, and I started responding to them by saying that yes, it was a lot of work but I was getting to know a lot of people and it was really helping me feel like a part of the community.

        Okay, I need to adopt this attitude (especially that first sentence) in all aspects of my life. When it comes to housework & yardwork, it may take me a reminder or two, but that formula of “yes this is [a lot of] work but [positive outcome]” goes a long way. In fact, I can apply that to my job search, too! Relevance!

  12. The RO-Cat*

    A good role model for me was, of all people, Cesar Milan. I tried to see how he behaved, especially with imbalanced dogs, how he spoke, how he moved… there are lots and lots of non-verbal cues to be picked from his show. Though his “calm, assertive energy” phrase has nothing scientific in it, what he does has results.

  13. lazuli*

    Even if the work itself isn’t stressing you out, you may want to think about whether you tend toward anxiety in general. Being around anxious people tends to make me anxious, even if they’re not particularly stressed out about anything — it’s like they just constantly vibrate at a higher frequency and I start getting sympathetic anxiety-frequency vibrations. If that rings true at all, looking up coping resources for anxiety (and practicing them!) or even talking to a therapist might help.

  14. Mallory Janis Ian*

    I like Cesar Milan as a role model for that, too. Conveying a calm and collected attitude helps in all sorts of situations, with both animals and humans, to keep nerves and emotions from escalating.

  15. gnarlington*

    Oh, man. Is there a way I can inconspicuously forward this post to my manager? *Sigh*

      1. Myrin*

        A service where you print posts on pink and rose-scented paper and mail them in an envelope full of glitter!

      2. Mallory Janis Ian*

        I often wish that people in OPs’ letters could read about themselves through some anonymous source . . .

        1. Ama*

          Heh, now I’m imagining a sort of AAM Tinder, where you scroll through the posts and it tells you if someone has “matched” you with one of them (anonymously, though).

      3. TootsNYC*

        On a forum that had a lot of emotional advice (as a side-effect), and on an organizational forum, I always wanted to be able to email a poster’s spouse or relative and say, “Get your wife This Product for the next present-giving occasion!”

      4. alter_ego*

        Like that service that anonymously mails people glitter bombs, but with anonymous advice column mailings.
        I’d be into that.

  16. Murphy*

    This is one of my biggest management challenges. I don’t have much of a poker face and I’ve been working on this for a while now (I really started to notice it after coming back from mat leave 6 months ago). I just started a new job and I’m using this as an opportunity to really reflect on the image I project to my team. I’m trying some of the things suggested above (especially taking a deep breath) and checking my face and language so I don’t present an aura of “frazzled and likely to snap” as often as I have before.

    I think this is a problem that’s more common that people think and it’s great to read some of the other advice in these comments so I can add it to my bag of tricks.

    1. TootsNYC*

      (be careful that the deep breath doesn’t come with “sigh” sort of vibe, or too much of an “I’m bracing myself” vibe either. I’m sure you’ll find a way to make it work)

  17. Tim C.*

    I have found job stress comes from a few common areas:
    1.) You are ill prepared to perform the job. This could be lack of training or lack of advanced notice of the assignment.
    2.) You are required to perform too much. Either the overall volume of work is too much or the time allotted is not sufficient. You can’t be in two places at the same time nor should you have more than one conversation at a time.
    3.) You are worried about what your team may think of you. Asking people to work harder nor apply consequences is difficult. You may also be creating unintended resentment while asking them to perform reasonable tasks.

    If you identify the main source and address it, you may make the job more tolerable. Otherwise you will burn out.

  18. Been there, done that. Literally.*

    LOL – I could have written this letter a hundred times myself!
    I’ve worked in not-for-profit theatre/arts for over 35 years and this actually is pretty normal. (Only 6-day weeks? Sometimes I’d kill for that. My longest was 34 straight days with out a break, many of those 12-16 hour days). Some people will assume you are stressed when you aren’t; others will think something is not a big deal when it really is and has you massively stressed out. If you have staff that is older, they will want to mommy/Daddy you; younger staff will want you to Mommy/Daddy them.

    Best thing I learned was how to delegate whatever I could and get a good right-hand-man (woman, whatever).
    MAKE time to eat, potty break, see the outside world, talk with your staff.
    Silly contests, pizza/sushi/whatever together makes for a good working relationship. Make a point to do individual staff reviews – what are they doing well/poorly/well (always sandwich!) and ask how you can help them get better at what they do. My biggest peeve was always that I would do everything to support my staff but my bosses would ignore me (until something was a problem & then I got reamed out, my “fault” or not)

    Get involved in a mentoring/educational org and see how others work. I can recommend some if interested.

  19. I'm Not Phyllis*

    This was such a great question, with great advice to follow. Managers don’t always think about this kind of thing – so it’s great that you’re really considering the image you’re projecting.
    One thing that I wanted to say was that when a manager seems to be drowning under paperwork and always says they’re too busy for lunches and they stay late every day – your employees may also feel the need to make the same sacrifices. It’s important to set the example for the kind of environment you want to work in.

    1. Jillociraptor*

      Yes! I think it’s less about shielding employees from your stress, and more about being able to manage your emotions effectively. Your point is really true — managers can create a Crazy Busy culture unnecessarily. And they can also make people really anxious by NOT having emotional reactions. It’s sometimes validating to hear that your manager is also affected by the issue that’s bothering you (and not insulated, as people often believe). But the key is, are you in control of your emotions, or are your emotions in control of you? The former makes almost any emotional response feel genuine and not scary, and the later makes even the most innocent emotional displays feel more frightening.

    2. TootsNYC*

      I tend to stay late, even sometimes when I don’t need to.
      In order to counter any pressure my staff might feel to match me, etc., I make it a point to specifically say to my employees that I value their sense of priorities, and that I don’t just think it’s OK for them to leave, but that I admire them and value it.
      And I say it to my boss as well (bcs I had a boss that thought one of my most valuable and proactive employees was not dedicated to his job, because he left promptly on time almost every night. She ignored, or didn’t see, that he was the one to assume he’d be coming in on the weekend, or on a holiday, to meet a crucial deadline, and that he offered to stay later on days when there was a lot going on. So I made that visible, bcs she was a big part of how much raise I could give people.)

      and, I’m trying to get out of here closer to “on time.”

  20. Afiendishthingy*

    Oh man. I so want to leave a copy of this letter & response on my supervisor’s desk. She is talented and kind, but she is very visibly stressed pretty much all the time. As a group we are somewhat anxious people to begin with, so it’s pretty tough to have a boss wound so tight.

  21. stevenz*

    From my perspective the most important job of a manager is creating the environment in which your staff gets the work done most effectively and with good morale. Your morale will definitely affect theirs. They may be stressed for some of the same reasons you are, too. You might consider a couple of things. One is commiserating with your staff. If something ridiculous is going on in the company that causes stress for everyone, you can share your feeling that it’s ridiculous, punctuated by “still, we have to do it so let’s make the best of it.” (One of the more stressful things about being a manager is pretending that things don’t suck when in fact they do.) This allows you to 1. seem human, 2. project a supportive spirit and build trust, and 3. unload a bit. You may also want to have one-on-one conversations with your more “experienced” staff who may have the maturity to see you as a human being and a new manager who could use a friend/mentor and not judge you. There’s risk to that so you would have to be pretty confident of the person you talk with – a mutually trusting relationship.

    On that, does your company have a mentoring program, or is there one available from a business support group? How about EAP? Your HR people?

    Do you have staff meetings? Is your staff a manageable enough size that you could meet at a nearby cafe instead of in the office? Or a time during the week to just kick ideas around? These kinds of interactions could let you show a more relaxed face to your staff. (In places outside the US it’s still quite OK to end the week with wine and beer in the office on Friday afternoons. Ha!) Of course, not all company cultures allow such foolishness.

    What about your work schedule? Would it help to come in later? Leave earlier? Both?! Don’t kill yourself over a job. It’s not a good way to go and nobody will thank you for it anyway. Been There Done That, above, says she went 34 days without a break, 12 – 16 hour days. Look, that’s pathological. If that’s what it takes to get a job done, something is very very wrong and working 80 hour weeks is not going to fix it, and may make it worse. Again, nobody is expecting that and nobody deserves that kind of self-abuse from you or anyone else.

    Keep a perspective and find people to talk to, and take their lessons to the office with you.

    And breathe, stay hydrated, and love someone.

    (By the way, can you do anything about the source of the stress? You didn’t say much about where it’s coming from.)

    1. stevenz*

      Note: What I just wrote is more of a do-what-I-say-not what-do thing. I am very prone to stress and it has at times been very destructive to my mental and physical health, so since I”m so bad at managing stress I’m an expert at advising others how to do it. :-) So I understand completely if some of the “ordinary” and “easy” techniques are very hard to do in a practical way.

  22. CM*

    This is such an interesting thread with great advice! I never realized this was part of a good manager’s role until I learned it from my current manager. This is really one of her strengths. She’s under a tremendous amount of pressure from very high places, and sometimes I see it in her face (or in her 3 a.m. emails), but she always has a few minutes to talk with me, pleasantly and with a smile on her face, in a way that shows I have her full attention and she’s taking seriously whatever issue I’m bringing to her. It also never occurred to me that she might be annoyed when I try to express empathy, which I occasionally do — I’ll say something like, “It looks like you’ve been working a lot of late nights, and you’ve been under a lot of pressure from Big Boss,” and she inevitably responds with something like, “Yes, but it will pass / Big Boss is just trying to make sure this project is done right” or some other positive statement.

  23. Agile Phalanges*

    I’m a bit late to this post, but something I thought of when reading Alison’s response to the OP was ER doctors and/or paramedics. They can be in the midst of a crazy situation, and they never seem to be frantic, yet they also have a very business-like vibe. Their demeanor exudes the importance of the situation and “don’t interrupt me,” and you definitely can tell they’re busy working, making life-and-death decisions, etc., yet they’re not outwardly showing the chaos, either. Maybe that’s the demeanor the OP should be working toward.

Comments are closed.