Is There an Optimal Level of Stress?

Want your team to achieve big goals? You need a little stress to push your team out of their resting, or natural performance levels, to a higher level of performance. But too much pressure will, well, stress them out.

One of my favorite books in recent years Peak Performance provides a simple formula for growth:

They argue that in the right dose stress can be beneficial and push us to growth and success.

So what is the optimal level of stress?

An article in Harvard Business Review by Liane Davie gives a few keys to determining that and techniques for managing:

Assess the Current State

Seems obvious, but you need to know where you are to know where you are going. Some of the athletes on the team will be complacent, some performing well and some already under pressure.

Differentiate and know who’s where.

Increase frequency of coaching

Davie recommends you coach those individuals who need a push more often, but don’t ratchet up the intensity of the coaching.

Striking this balance is a good place to start.

See if simply paying attention increases pressure and therefore encourages development.

Connect to something bigger

Give a person a reason bigger than herself to help inspire her to the next level. Let her know that her growth will lift the entire team and that she’s a critical and essential piece of the puzzle.

Don’t pick up the slack

Another recommendation from the article, allow the negative consequences to play out some without rescuing.

My college coach emphasized our choice in all things. We made decisions, we chose to work to improve. If we didn’t do the work, there were natural consequences that followed.

Important to acknowledge though that it is tough sometimes not to rescue.

Frequent positive feedback

This is a chance for positive feedback even for small incremental progress.

We talk often with teams I work with about on the field communication. When things are going well increase demand and ask for higher levels of accountability.  As things get tougher, tighter, if failure is happening around you, shift tone and information. Be positive, find “wins.”

Find the balance and differentiate between performers.

Break the problem into smaller pieces

Chunk” the problem into smaller bites to reduce the sense of overwhelm when under stress.

Add structure

Let’s build on that last point.  When the pressure increases help provide a system and structure that drives performance. Provide calm, stability, and confidence in a process.  This will help your team to reduce stress and find solutions.

Structure and process allow teams to accelerate ahead even when the challenge is elevated.

Even Olympians focus on the task and structure and reduce their focus on the outcomes.

Model Confidence

If you want them to believe, then show them you believe.

These are techniques which will allow you to make use of the right amount of pressure in order to drive performance.

You don’t need to employ all of them.

And, some of these might be useful when pressure to perform arrives all on its own.

Another book that might be helpfulOptimal level of stress

The book Peak Performance also looks at stress from multiple angles.