Sometimes a little healthy pressure can go a long way. We’ve all felt it—the boost in motivation and focus when we’re staring down a challenge or performing in front of an audience.
It’s why athletes reach their peak in competition rather than practice, and why many said the lack of spectators at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics hurt their performance, rather than helped it. But we also know what it feels like to be under too much stress—and the paralyzing anxiety and overwhelm that comes with it. One of the main challenges leaders face today in light of The Great Resignation is knowing how much pressure to put on employees. When it comes to motivating people, there’s definitely a line on either end, and leaders can’t afford to get it wrong. So how much stress is too much, and how little is not enough?
What We Get Wrong About Stress
In our culture, stress is almost always seen as a bad thing. But a life with no stress would be a life of languishing, boredom, and indifference. That’s why leaders shouldn’t try to eliminate all stress. We need it to feel motivated and satisfied at work.
That’s where “eustress,” or “good stress” comes in. Good stress occurs when we’re faced with a healthy challenge—achieving a goal, taking on a new project, or stepping into a new role. It causes our sympathetic nervous system to activate, resulting in a flood of hormones throughout the body. This causes a burst of hyper-awareness, energy, and focus that can help performance in the moment. The key to experiencing eustress is feeling like we have the resources to cope with the challenge ahead, even if it means learning some new skills along the way.
Bad stress, on the other hand, occurs when a challenge feels insurmountable. When we don’t feel we have the resources we need—be it time or energy, or aptitude—a distress response is triggered. This results in the negative feelings we typically associate with stress—chiefly anxiety and overwhelm—which leads to decreased focus and performance. Bad stress typically lasts longer than good stress and contributes to all sorts of negative physical and mental health outcomes, including burnout.
The Relationship of Stress and Performance
The stress spectrum isn’t binary, with good stress on one end and bad stress on the other. Good stress actually occurs somewhere in the middle—between total boredom and all-out panic. The Yerkes-Dodson Curve, or Optimal Arousal Theory, helps illustrate this. The theory holds that when we’re bored and unstimulated, performance will suffer accordingly. But as our attention and interest increase, our performance increases as well until we reach an optimal level of stimulation (not too little and not too much), at which point our performance peaks. But, as soon as the level of stimulation—or stress, in other words—starts to become too much, our performance plummets accordingly. So on one hand, you have poor performance due to not enough stress and on the other, you have poor performance due to too much stress. Peak performance only happens when our stress level is, to quote Goldilocks, just right.
Motivating Employees for Peak Performance: Big Ideas for Your Organization
For leaders, the Yerkes-Dodson curve is a fine line to walk. Too much pressure causes anxiety and overwhelm; too little causes boredom and indifference, and both states result in poor performance. Not to mention that every employee has different thresholds for stress, and what may seem like an achievable challenge to one person may feel impossible to another. But knowing that when it comes to stress a healthy medium is key, leaders can take steps to help employees find the right balance.
Ask the right questions.
When it comes to gauging an employee’s stress levels, asking the right questions is crucial. And typically the right questions aren’t those with “yes” or “no” answers. As Krister Ungerbock, author of the leadership communication manual 22 Talk Shifts, shared with me, using a Likert scale can open the door for more honest conversations with employees. You could ask, on a scale of one to 10…
How challenging does this task feel?
How realistic is this deadline?
How much mental energy do you have to expend toward achieving this goal?
How equipped do you feel to take on this project?
The follow-up questions can then center around what needs to happen to reach the optimal number on the scale. For instance, if an employee answers that a task is a nine—nearly impossible—you could ask how you can help it feel more like a healthy five or six.
Help people tap into energizing work.
The optimal point of eustress is most likely to occur when people feel energized by the work they’re doing. While it’s not realistic for every moment of the workday to be filled with tasks that make them “come alive,” leaders can take steps to give employees more of the work that’s energizing and meaningful. Assessments like CliftonStrengths can help narrow down an employee’s strengths and open the door for conversations about the work they’re both good at and enjoy doing.
Offer more autonomy.
Juliette Tocino-Smith, Msc. writes that “the more control a person has over the environment with the stressor, the less likely their response to it will be negative and take the form of ‘distress.’” In other words, giving employees more autonomy over how the work gets done can help turn what would otherwise be negative stress into eustress. No one likes to be micromanaged, and when leaders take their hands off the wheel, it gives employees an exciting opportunity to innovate and explore new ways to achieve goals. What’s more, research shows that the employees with decision-making power are more committed to their roles, which translates into higher performance and job satisfaction.
Stress, like many things in life, is best in moderation. Give people the right amount and watch them thrive.