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I don’t have to, but I can quite a lot

Professional success is like a bank credit, a psychological credit, which is much harder to pay off than a bank loan. Doctor Magdalena Łużniak-Piecha, social psychologist from SWPS University explains how you can lower your cost of borrowing.

Clients usually ask business psychologists for support in the development of a broadly understood strategy for the prevention of organizational crises. Some questions they ask include: how to increase team effectiveness, how to develop motivational programs, communication strategies, etc. In short: how to build a stable organization, which would be resistant to problems. Obviously this is not surprising, because providing an optimal work environment is conducive to achieving success.

Psychological budget gap

Unfortunately, the pursuit of success is not free of problems. As all business professionals know, although sometimes they behave as if they didn’t know about it, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Organizational success requires investment. Mangers perceive the investment as a financial input into the business, which requires funds for technologies, marketing campaigns and training. All these costs are included in the budget so that the managers can effectively manage the development strategy. This way, if they accurately plan the budget, they avoid crises on the financial or manufacturing level. However, sometimes the managers forget about psychological costs of work and they fail to prepare a different, yet very important, budget, based on psychological currency invested in their own and their employees personal development.

The lack of a budget related to psychological costs equals the lack of strategy for a sustainable investment of psychological resources. When you exert these resources, the psychological crisis occurs in the same way as the financial crisis, when you overspend. In Poland, Doctor Joanna Mesjasz, who conducts research on psychological costs of work, defines these costs as excessive investments related to pursuit of success, reversible or irreversible losses and also lost profits in psychological, somatic and social areas. The costs also include limitations in realizing other opportunities that carry a personal value for you (see J. Mesjasz, Stress, Professional Burnout and Psychological Costs - An Opportunity for New Quality?). Hence, from the economic approach, psychological costs of work are your investment, including: planned costs, losses, i.e. unexpected or excessive costs, as well as forfeited and missed gains, i.e. alternative costs. The psychological costs of work may include several years of your life invested in pursuit of a goal, unrealized dreams or a non-existent relationship with your children. By allowing the excessive, uncontrolled and impossible to balance investments to multiply, you pave the way to professional burnout, life crisis and disappointment. And psychological credit is much harder to pay off than a bank loan.

Managers who are aware of the mechanisms of growing psychological costs can create an organizational culture that values employees who take care of their own psychological wellbeing more than permanently overworked, nervous and chain smoking individuals.

Costs not benefits

The list of costs starts with a broadly understood personal development. The cost of professional success often means the lack of personal development in other areas, postponing until the unspecified future the attainment of your personal goals, which you set at the time when you could not afford to realize them. For example, your dreams of a trip around the world: “Now I have the money, but there is no way I can get six month off to travel.” You don’t even have the time to review the photos from your last skiing trip or to develop your talents – once, ages ago, you were not half bad at playing the guitar... There is no more time to dream and no more time to reflect. Everything becomes a cost, because it is not a gain. You no longer draw on your interests, your talents or even your financial position.

Additional costs impact the spiritual area related to values. They include all moral costs that do not let you sleep at night, conflicts of values, pangs of conscience and dilemmas related to fulfilling your professional obligations. Sometimes, they also include a devaluation of your own system of values, a conflict between declared and actual values and the feeling of guilt as well as not enough time for self-reflection and spiritual growth. In social terms, the costs include alienation and a conflict of roles you play. These costs may include loneliness related to being in a managerial role, the necessity to hide your true feelings and dreams on daily basis as well as an external role conflict (inability to balance the managerial role with the role of a parent) and an internal conflict (a conflict of expectations between the professional role and the behaviors it requires). The costs include weakened relationships with partners and abandoned relationships with your children, family and friends. You usually notice these personal costs first.

Additional losses come from an excessive number of tasks and responsibilities you take on and the pressure to complete them in the shortest possible time. When it happens, you may feel threatened at work, unsure of keeping your job, be afraid of competition and prone to conflicts. The price you pay is wearing a mask that covers your weaknesses and your real feelings.

The health costs irrevocably come as the result of being overdrawn on your “credit line” that includes the following aspects: somatic (“Who has the time to stay in bed, when deadlines loom?”), psychological (“In the evening I take sleeping pills, in the morning other drugs to wake up and somehow I mange”), and behavioral (“I am not yelling, I am just being assertive”). The symptoms of this unbalanced budget include impaired memory, lack of concentration, mood swings, stress, and a state of permanent irritation. If the management of these resources does not change, you will experience additional symptoms, such as apprehension, professional burnout, loss of spontaneity and overly formal behavior resulting from constant pressure and readiness to fight. Extreme cases also include anxiety and depression. Other daily signs of being overworked and overstressed include mistakes and oversights, i.e. lower standards of work, multitasking at the cost of quality, being in a hurry, even if it is not necessary, abandoning unfinished projects, missing and postponing deadlines. The symptoms may also include substance abuse, including coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, sedatives and sleeping pills. You may also observe behaviors such as hasty eating and lack of time and energy for physical activity. This is the balance sheet of psychological costs that you pay on the way to success. What should you do with this diagnosis?

By allowing the excessive, uncontrolled and impossible to balance investments to multiply, you pave the way to professional burnout, life crisis and disappointment.

Cost reduction strategy

When you research psychological costs, you also research gains. Keep in mind that an unbalanced investment is an investment that has not brought the expected results. Psychological gains include satisfaction from your achievements and awareness that you have ensured comfort, safety, development and a good standard of living for yourself and your family. The concept of Doctor Joanna Mesjasz also includes satisfaction from achieving a high social status, having a respectable position in society and many opportunities for professional development. It is also your personal satisfaction that you have achieved all of the above things thanks to your own hard work and your own investment. You just have to learn to balance your investments and make conscious decisions about lowering the costs versus increasing the usage of accumulated gains. When you are ready to proclaim: I don’t HAVE TO, but I CAN QUITE A LOT.

How to implement the cost reduction strategy? Research, conducted in a group of managers leading large teams, confirms the existence of an informal strategy of managing the psychological costs of work (see M. Łużniak--Piecha Koszty psychologiczne pracy oraz Model Rozpędu jako strategia niwelowania kosztów [Psychological Costs of Work and Acceleration Model as a Strategy of Cost Elimination]). Some of the managers have indicated that they consciously studied the mechanisms leading to the increase of psychological costs, therefore they know at which point of the organizational or personal development these costs will be growing and what are their causes and effects. Thanks to this knowledge, they are able to plan countermeasures, which help to balance the costs, at least to some degree. These countermeasures range from the basic ones, related to psychological wellbeing (“When I have a hard day, I run in the evening. I like it a lot and it relaxes me” – this type of behavior often becomes an example for subordinates and encourages them to undertake similar activities) to formal standards (“We need to appreciate all members of the team and effectively manage their vacation time”). These managers consciously develop organizational culture based on the message that the company values employees who take care of their own psychological wellbeing more than permanently overworked, nervous and chain smoking individuals.

However, the knowledge by itself is not enough. Another, very important element of this strategy is working on the development of interpersonal competencies and building open and honest relationships with the people around you. Good relationships help to create a system preventing psychological crises in an organization or, if a crisis cannot be avoided, help to effectively reduce its impact. In practice it means developing conditions conducive to mutual support for all members of the organization and noticing talents and interests of the team members, which sometimes helps to divide responsibilities in an optimal way. In this context, a dialogue with employees, employee satisfaction surveys and talent management are not silly ideas devised by HR, but become very effective elements of organizational anti-crisis strategy.

The article was first published in the Polish edition of "Newsweek Psychologia Extra 2/18”.
Magazine available here »

magdalena Łużniak piecha

About the Author

Magdalena Łużniak-Piecha, Ph.D. - social psychologist, lecturer in management and leadership at SWPS University. Collaborates with Polish University Abroad (PUNO) in London and with the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Mexico. Develops and implements gaming techniques in training, consulting and research practice. Researches and helps to eradicate organizational pathologies. She is especially interested in the techniques of coping with personality pathologies and communication breakdowns in organizations.

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