In an episode of The Office, Jim Halpert steals Andrew Bernard’s cell phone and hides it in the ceiling tiles above his head. Jim proceeds to call Andy’s cell phone and watch Andy shuffle papers and lift his keyboard trying to find his phone. Finally, Andy snaps. He stands up, pushes his office chair away from his desk, and punches a hole in the wall.

Andy’s rage is an outward expression of a deeper rooted issue. Andy needs anger management.

No one wants Andy to punch a hole in the wall. No one wants Jen to start shouting at a colleague over a copier paper jam. No one wants Sheila to start weeping during her employee evaluation. 

Everyone experiences seasons of acute stress, like a product recall or a family member being diagnosed with cancer, but how can you tell when the day-to-day annoyances in the office are threatening to push your staff member over the edge?

Escalating Stages of Stress

The Angela Martin Stage of Stress

Angela maintains a fairly consistent level of annoyance from doses of stress. She probably experiences 5-8 episodes of annoying stress in a day.

The Angela in your office:
  • seems to be in a rush all of the time
  • has a grimace on their face
  • does not have time to share pleasantries (just “the task”)
  • makes as many negative or critical comments as positive and praising comments
  • cuts people off in conversation, finishes their sentences, or interrupts them

The Andrew Bernard Stage of Stress

In part because Jim Halpert is trying to aggravate him, Andy’s Stage of Stress is more of a habit than Angela’s. Andy encounters all of the above everyday instead of here and there.

The Andy in your office:
  • is impatient with people, including subordinates and clients/customers
  • does not seem to notice the food they are eating at lunch
  • exhibits psychosomatic signs of stress including frequent colds, allergies, sleep disorders, and gastro-intestinal problems
  • seems preoccupied and not present anywhere
  • seems to make more negative or critical comments than positive ones
  • hasn’t watched some of the latest hot movies or television shows, or read any recent bestselling novels
  • forgot their children’s names and/or spouse’s or partner’s birthday

The Dwight Schrute Stage of Stress

At this point, your colleague’s stress has become a lifestyle. The Dwights of the office have lost the cognitive, perceptual and emotional abilities needed for their work and life. Dwight experiences all of the above stressors, all of the time.

The Dwight in your office:
  • only talks about financials and budgets
  • does not smile
  • offers only negative or critical comments (including supposed “constructive criticism”)
  • is somewhat uncomfortable to be around—they make the mood at a meeting or meal a “heavy” event
  • is preoccupied by goals, metrics and dashboards of performance

Okay, Michael Scott, how can you help your people?

As the manager in your office, you can be aware of your colleagues and help them address their levels of stress before they reach Dwight Schrute status. Exceptional leaders, executives, and managers are not just smart or lucky but more frequently rely on emotional intelligence in order to understand, motivate, and develop themselves and others. 

Keeping the pulse of your colleagues’ stress levels and helping them to manage that stress will drastically improve your office’s day-to-day productivity, functionality, and overall atmosphere, making it a place where people feel appreciated and inspired instead of annoyed, exploited, and driven to punch holes in walls.

Richard Boyatzis, PhD, is the author of more than 175 articles and seven books, including the international bestseller Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence with Daniel Goleman and Annie McKee. His Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence, has over 510,000 students enrolled through Coursera from over 215 countries. Boyatzis is a Distinguished University Professor at Case Western Reserve University where he serves as professor of organizational behavior, psychology and cognitive science and holds the H.R. Horvitz Chair in Family Business in the Weatherhead School of Management.