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Where Stress Meets Performance

Where Stress Meets Performance

We generally talk about stress like it’s a bad thing. Putting people under stress is something that many leaders try to avoid. Why? Well, if you put people under stress, then maybe they’ll feel bad and won’t like you anymore. And because of our natural conflict aversion, we want our people to like us.

We lean into our well-developed power of rationalization, and do everything we can to give ourselves a reason to not ask our people to stretch. The rationalization is pretty simple, and it generally goes something like this: “If I don’t put my people under stress, they will be happier, and it’s a well-known fact that happy workers are productive workers, right?

This is complete bullsh!t…

We often confuse correlation with causation. To spell this out, the relationship between altitude and temperature is a causal relationship. The higher up you go, the colder it gets. It’s a law of nature. It’s predictable. It’s consistent. And regardless of whether you believe it or not, that’s the way it works.

Then there’s correlation, like the link between alcoholism and smoking. If you’re an alcoholic, it’s much more likely that you’re also a smoker, than if you weren’t an alcoholic. But no one would suggest that being an alcoholic causes you to smoke.

When we talk about happy workers being productive workers, we’re looking at a correlation that may or may not be true in any given instance. It’s actually pretty easy as a leader to make your people happy… and when you do that, you can even lift your engagement score. How cool is that? But productivity? That’s a completely different story.

What if you gave everyone Fridays off? What if you increased their base pay by 50%? What if you allowed an hour a day for internet shopping? What if you didn’t demand anything from them and paid them really, really well? Are they going to be happy? Sure. At least in the short term. 

But for your really good people, that gets old really fast. They don’t find it satisfying to live in a mediocre culture. Most people don’t, unless of course they are, themselves, mediocre. By definition, your mediocre people will love it and they will never leave. Happy and productive? I think not!

The Yerkes Dodson law is our guide here. This principle is over a hundred years old: two behavioral psychologists (with the unlikely names of Yerkes and Dodson) carried out groundbreaking research that mapped the relationship between stress and performance.

What they found was that stress is a critical catalyst for performance. With no stress, performance will be average, at best. We need stress to give us focus and motivation. And, as stress increases, so does performance… up to a point, of course. Once you hit that point where stress becomes too much, then performance plateaus out or declines.

As a leader, your objective is to get your people to that point where the stress is sufficient to release their performance, but not so great that it actually causes them to fail, and their performance to decline. That sweet spot between anxiety and boredom!

Think of the pressure that comes with an immovable deadline. How much do you get done in the 24 to 48 hours before you go on vacation? You get heaps done if you’re anything like me. Ask yourself the question, “Would you get that much done without the need to finish those things before you go away?” It’s incredibly unlikely. But you’ve got to work out where that sweet spot is for every individual you lead.

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