Calming Forces:

Managers play a key role today as workers deal with anxieties

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Valerie Murzl, senior vice president of human resources and training for Station Casinos, at the Station Casino's corporate headquarters Thursday, May 3, 2012.

Tips on improving management skills

    Finding time for professional development can be difficult, but there are plenty of self-help books and other reference sources available to help managers improve to their skills.

    Here are a few favorites from Valerie Murzl, senior vice president of human resources and training for Station Casinos, Hartley White, vice president of human resources for HealthCare Partners of Nevada, and Kristen Nazario, director of human resources operations at Bally Technologies Inc.

  • The StrengthsFinder, a personal assessment tool that managers can use to identify employees’ strong points.
  • The Harvard Business Review smartphone app, which routinely offers material on management tips and advice.
  • "The One Minute Manager," by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson. The easy-to-read books offer simple and practical approaches on employee motivation, organizational skills, leadership and a number of other topics.
  • "Buried Alive! Digging Out of a Management Dumpster," by Shane Yount, Anna Versteeg, Debra Boggan and John Pyecha, with Linda Segall. This 2010 book offers step-by-step instructions on how to ensure employees are pulling their weight and work is spread evenly among staff members.
  • Sites for various business-oriented authors, including jimcollins.com and kenblanchard.com. Experts offer tools, articles and tips.
  • Zapposinsights.com.Tony Hsieh, CEO of Las Vegas-based online retailer Zappos, and a “crack commando force team” of Zappos employees provide perspectives and tips on how to build a happy and productive work environment.

It’s a formula for a particularly potent blend of stress.

Take one business managerial position, combine it with a downsized workforce and a crushing amount of pressure to either maintain profits or face financial failure, sprinkle in pay freezes or salary reductions and shake vigorously in a Southern Nevada economy that’s far worse than the national average.

Handle with extreme caution. This stuff can be really toxic, as human relations administrators know.

Valerie Murzl, senior vice president of human resources and training for Station Casinos, says she’s seen a 50 percent increase during the last three years in managers coming to her office for help. Her advice?

“Always exhibit a sense of calm,” she said. “I mean, inordinately calm. I encourage them to have a very calming presence no matter how difficult everything is.”

Easy to say. But how can a manger stay cool when the workload is high, executives are dialing up the pressure and employees need direction?

“Breathe. Don’t react. And listen,” Murzl said. “I found in the last three years that in just listening to people with their concerns, their fears and their struggles, a lot of them would say, ‘Thanks for listening,’ even if I didn’t do anything to solve their problem. They just wanted someone to show some compassion.”

So three simple steps — breathe, listen and don’t react — and you’re a great manager, right?

Wrong. Station and other companies offer extensive training courses, mentorship programs and educational materials to help managers, whose jobs can be delicate and difficult in good times and even more of a challenge when dips in the economy cause resources to shrink and pressure to grow.

Although it would appear the worst of the recession has passed, it’s refused to release its grip on many Southern Nevada companies as the region continues to struggle amid 12.1 percent unemployment, a high foreclosure rate and a stubborn lull in construction.

Against that backdrop, VEGAS INC reached out to Murzl and two other HR professionals — Hartley White, vice president of human resources for HealthCare Partners of Nevada, and Kristen Nazario, director of human resources operations at Bally Technologies Inc. — for tips on how managers can improve their skills and navigate the recession more smoothly.

Here are some of their suggestions:

Hit the SOSS

Nazario says Bally managers are encouraged to remember four coping methods in times of extreme stress: Stop, Oxygenate, generate a Sense of gratitude and Seek information.

Two of the methods are pretty self-explanatory. Nazario suggests stopping and walking away from whatever is causing the problem. Oxygenate means breathe.

Generating a sense of gratitude is another way of saying managers should think of something for which they’re thankful. Children, a new car, an upcoming vacation, anything will do as long as it makes an individual feel grateful. Nazario says studies have shown that sensing gratitude releases a chemical in the body that produces a calming effect by counteracting other chemicals triggered by stress.

Seeking information involves assessing the severity of the problem and determining ways to solve it.

If it’s a disagreement with an employee, for example, does it stem from an on-the-job issue or a personal problem? If it’s a job-related matter — for example, perhaps an employee is struggling to complete a task — what alternatives are available to help the employee?

“I really think that the moments when you’re away from those immediate moments of stress are opportunities to learn,” Nazario said. “Why did you feel the way you did? What behavior did you exhibit that didn’t work for you? Those are the kinds of questions you can ask yourself in those situations.”

Go home

Seriously, Murzl says, eight to 10 hours a day is enough. Managers need to protect their health and well being, which might mean delegating daily duties and relying more on collaboration in order to leave the office at a reasonable time.

“There are studies that say anybody who works more than 10 hours a day, at some point is no longer working at their highest level,” she said. “Your body and your brain need a rest. Somebody might still be productive after 10 hours, I just don’t think they’re as effective at that point as they could be.”

White says overextending is one of the most common traits among struggling managers.

“When you’re somebody who believes you need to take on everything, what happens is you tend to burn out quickly,” she said.

Delegating can be easier said than done. White says the first step is to avoid taking on others’ problems.

“Our job as managers is to remove barriers or obstacles for the individuals in our organizations,” she said. “So if someone comes to you with a problem, you might ask: ‘How do you believe we should resolve that issue? Then, we can talk about some action steps. Tell me steps one, two and three of how we might be able to resolve the problem.’”

Listen and learn

A major component of HealthCare Partners of Nevada’s Manager University development program involves how to establish relationships between supervisors and staff members.

The key is conversation. White says managers should talk to employees on a regular basis about a range of topics, from what motivates them to what they enjoy doing away from work to how they prefer to be recognized and rewarded. By understanding the members of their teams, White says, managers can work more effectively with them — and, as a result, optimize their productivity.

“It’s important to know how each person ticks to a certain degree and understand why they come to work,” she said. “One of the biggest misnomers is that if we throw money at people, it will make them happy. But when people are asked what satisfies them the most about their job, the No. 1 reason they give is the relationship they have with their manager and colleagues. And that hasn’t changed during the recession.”

Murzl says conversations should begin with a very basic question.

“How do you like to communicate?” she says. “Do you like e-mails, texts, phone calls? It’s important to understand what level people are comfortable with, because you’ve got to realize you’re working with all kinds of people. Some are audio-oriented, some visual, some kinesthetic. You have introverts and extroverts, and some are more communicative than others.”

Effective communication can short-circuit problems, the HR pros say.

“One of the most common complaints I hear (from managers who are struggling) is ‘How come everybody can’t function at the same level that I function at?’ ” White said. “What you have to understand is that people come from all different walks of life and with different values and belief systems. You have to sit back and figure out what motivates one person as opposed to another.”

Be clear

It’s a fundamental management rule: Make sure employees are very clear about what’s expected of them. Once the bar is set, White says, managers should make no bones in telling employees whether expectations are being met.

“The hardest piece of management is to coach and give feedback,” she said. “You have to tell people how they’re doing — good, bad or ugly. What I tell people who are struggling with that is, if you were doing something wrong the whole time and nobody told you, how would you feel?

Get advice

Some companies make it easy for managers to turn to experienced executives for guidance. Bally’s is among them, offering one-on-one mentorship opportunities for the 50 executives per year who participate in the company’s Excellence in Leadership program.

But even if no formal mentorship programs exist, it’s wise to reach out for help from veterans.

“People should use the resources around them,” Murzl said. “There was a person in our company who just recently got promoted, and something he’s doing that I think is great is he decided to reach out to other people here for advice. He set up a meeting with me, and I ended up spending three hours with him.”

Other resources include books, websites and other instructional materials.

Look ahead

White, Murzl and Nazario agreed that effective managers focus on the future and company objectives as opposed to dwelling on the minutiae of any problems at hand.

Employees want to know that they’re contributing in a meaningful way to a bigger effort, the HR pros said. It’s the manager’s job not only to ensure that staff members are making valuable contributions, but communicating to them that what they’re doing matters.

“You have to know what the organization’s end goal is and be able to describe it so your team is all marching in the same direction,” Nazario said. “For us, that means what is going to benefit the customer and what’s the specific need a customer may have. If you keep the focus there, you’re more likely not to get stuck.”

But if there’s a thread between good management principles, it’s keeping a level head and exhibiting good judgment. That’s especially true in tough times, Murzl says.

“If you’re in a leadership capacity and you have employees looking up to you, you have to check at the door your emotions and your drama and any fueling of that,” she said. “Model calm and thoughtful conversation and maybe spend a little extra time on understanding the concerns or drama of the day. Lending that calming effect will go a long way.”

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  1. Often times the manager got to be a manager for the wrong reasons. She really doesn't know what she is doing. That creates the cornerstone for stress.