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March 2004 Issue

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Management Strategies & Tips

By Jan Norton, Missouri Western State College

Email: norton@mwsc.edu

Leadership & Stress

Although I have been a learning center manager for a long time – or perhaps because I’ve been in this position for a long time – I continue to be interested in new ways to think of familiar issues, such as managing employees.  In the hopes that you too are curious about such things, here’s one of my recent discoveries.  I claim no serious knowledge of cognitive resources theory: what little I read simply inspired me to think about its possible relevance.

The research and writings of Fred Fiedler were primarily about organizational leadership.  One of his concepts, cognitive resources theory, examines the interactions between leadership styles and stress.  In particular, he studied two characteristics of leaders: intelligence and experience. 

What he found is that a leader’s intelligence (i.e., cognitive resources) is most useful in low stress or routine tasks, especially when there is a high level of employee support.  Those are the work situations in which the application of a leader’s intelligence and creativity, directing and inspiring co-workers’ participation, can lead to new challenges by brainstorming possible improvements and increasing services and expectations.  A leader’s cognitive resources are most useful when the tasks are intellectually challenging, as they so often are in education.

But Fiedler suggests that in stressful periods or situations, leaders are better off relying on their experiences and past success instead of turning to intellectual analyses.  Under stress, many thinkers try to analyze, but in fact, organizations are often wiser to apply tried-and-true solutions: when work is stressful, employees need strong leaders with a clear direction.  It can be hard to think when you’re under stress, but that’s when instincts – or experience and intuition – can step in to take care of you.

Although I have never thought of my work as a manager in these terms, the idea makes sense.  I do trust in my intellect, but looking back, I can see how that approach may have made some situations even more stressful than they needed to be.  And when things are settled down, when there’s a clear routine and comfortable stability, it is indeed a good time to imagine and pursue new goals and generate new experiences that can be tapped at other times.  Obviously, being able to manage stress well allows you to be a more effective leader.

Try thinking about your own circumstances in managing or working with other people, whether on a daily basis or on committees.  Under what situations do you think you perform best?  When are you most likely to rely on your experiences in the profession?  What can you do to relieve your employees’ stress levels so that they too can make the most of their intellectual talents?

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