The Stress-Performance Curve

Dec 17, 2011 by

The Stress-Performance Curve

Much has been made about stress.  Because it is something that can be ignored for long periods of time without consequence, it often is.  But that would be a mistake.

As early as the turn of the last century, research by Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson suggested a relationship between stress and performance.  Incremental stress has a positive effect on performance.  After a certain point, that stress becomes detrimental.

Think of it in terms of a two-minute drill in football.  While an imperfect example, teams sure seem to be able to accomplish more in the last two minutes of a game than they do in the previous fifty eight.  It’s why we have come from behind wins and clutch quarterbacks.  But those guys play for three hours a week.  The curve looks very different when it appears to us every day or every week.

The Yerkes-Dodson response, as I call it is dependent on four variables. The situation requiring the response has to be:

  • New or ideal
  • Unpredictable
  • Out of control of the individual, and/or
  • In the presence of a threat

These represent a fairly specific set of circumstances that are on the one hand rare and on the other largely undesirable.

As leaders, we have to sensitize ourselves to this.  How often do we motivate employees by creating new and unpredictable challenges for them?  Or do we rather present random, reactionary responses to our business results?  Do we provide a good level of empowerment to our folks over the eventual end of their efforts, or do we simply ask them to execute our ideas?

Good leaders know how to motivate.  Great leaders understand how to tap into the internal motivations of their teams.  Creating stress is an important means of motivation, but that stress has to be within the response curve.  How are you doing?

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