Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 263
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

An Antidote for Strain

New research into job stress reveals a skill that protects people from suffering strain.

Can you think of someone you know who suffers from job stress? If so, you've probably noticed evidence of strain, like increased use of sick leave, chronic anxiety, or irritability. Have you ever wondered why many other people, who experience the same job stress, don't show similar signs of strain? After all, if job stress afflicts one person with negative symptoms, shouldn't it also afflict others?

Pamela Perrewe, from Florida State University, believes that people possess an ability to neutralize job stress. She believes that people who use this ability sense the same stressors everyone else feels, but these stressors don't have negative effects for them. She also believes this ability can be learned by people who currently don't use it and that people who suffer from symptoms of strain due to job stress can be helped by learning and practicing its component skills. The ability which she feels offers this protective effect is interpersonal effectiveness.

Professor Perrewe studied 230 Brazilian petroleum workers and their supervisors. She collected data on strain, including blood pressure, physical complaints, and chronic anxiety, and she also collected perceptions of interpersonal effectiveness. She gave people a list of six statements that described this skill and asked people to react to them with a similarity rating: "This statement does (or does not) describe me." The more they believed these statements described them, the higher their level of interpersonal effectiveness. Here are the six statements:

    1. I find it easy to envision myself in the position of others.
    2. I am able to make most people feel comfortable and at ease around me.
    3. It is easy for me to develop good rapport with most people.
    4. I understand people well.
    5. I am good at getting others to respond positively to me.
    6. I usually try to find common ground with others.

As job stress increased, people who reported low levels of interpersonal effectiveness revealed rapidly rising symptoms of strain, including rising blood pressure, chronic anxiety, and physical complaints. People reporting high levels of interpersonal effectiveness had a much lower rise in symptoms of strain, and their blood pressure even fell.

For Ms. Perrewe, this was strong evidence to support her claim that interpersonal effectiveness neutralizes job stress. She explains the process this way:

When people are in a setting that is important for their well-being (like a job), they continually monitor their ability to function. As long as they feel confident that they can handle the demands placed on them, then job stress does not cause strain and symptoms don't appear. But when people lose this confidence and believe that the demands of a situation will tax or exceed their ability to cope with them, then job stress leads to the strain that causes troubling symptoms to emerge, e.g., high blood pressure.

When people believe they are skilled in interpersonal relationships, they view others as a source of support to help them in difficult circumstances. It is this confidence that interferes with the connection between stress and symptoms of strain. It neutralizes it, Perrewe says.

Interpersonal effectiveness can be learned, and the statements listed above suggest ways to do so. Each statement implies exercises. For example, the first statement involves knowledge of other people and imagination of their thoughts and feelings. Learning this skill would be helped by practicing it. The second involves hospitality, and learning appropriate rules for hospitality and adopting these practices should lead to increases in this skill.

Rapport can be developed by asking people questions that allow them to talk about themselves. Being known by another person builds rapport. Finding common ground with another person is a negotiation skill. Learning to get others to respond positively to you involves making requests in an appropriate way once the foundation has been prepared for a positive relationship, such as finding common ground between two parties.

Professor Perrewe believes that interpersonal skill is an antidote to the debilitating effects of job stress. If we can coach people who suffer from stress to improve this skill and to practice it, then their confidence should increase and their symptoms of strain should diminish. It's another way we can help.

Reference: Perrewe, Pamela, Kelly Zellars, Gerald Ferris, Ana Rossi, Charles Kacmar, and David Ralston (2004) Neutralizing Job Stressors: Political Skill as an Antidote to the Dysfunctional Consequences of Role Conflict. Academy of Management Journal, 47 (1), 141-152.

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