This is a rather interesting question, one that I have taken opposing views over the years.  As a humanist, I would have said stress in any shape or form was bad for people and the job of managers would have been to keep this to a minimum.  Minimum may imply that we can’t eliminate it altogether but as managers and leaders would we purposefully apply stress to individuals and teams?  At that time in my career, I did feel that to do this was in some ways counter to my principles and ethics.  However, I had an epiphany whilst reading Clutterbuck’s “Coaching the Team at Work”, a must-read for any aspiring Agile Coach. 

As many of you already know stress can be either be a good or a bad thing.  If we didn’t have some level of stress in our lives we might not even get out of bed in the morning.  In fact, there is a positive type of stress, called eustress, which is a productive type of stress where individuals are able to create energy and positive results from the stress they are feeling.  This is the type of stress that athletes and other high performers enjoy to help them consistently hit ever-improving targets of performance.  However, stress, when taken to extremes, is highly debilitating.  This was proved by Robert Yerkes and John Dodson way back in1908 when they created the Yerkes-Dodson law.

So how can we use this information for the benefit of the organisation? Clutterbuck describes Benson’s “Breakout Sequence” which is where through 4 simple steps “the mind is at its most creative when it is taken to the top of the stress curve” (p212, Coaching the Team at Work).

These steps are:

  1. Grapple with a challenge and keep going until you feel you are becoming stressed, bored or unproductive (does this sound like what happens to all you solution developers out there when you discover a bug or you are trying to provide an elegant or just in time solution for your business partners?)
  2. Walk away; literally go walk, do something else, anything else that distracts the mind away from the challenge (Personally I like to programme my subconscious mind at this point with a suggestion: “Right that’s all my conscious mind can do for now; I hand it over to you my subconscious mind to creatively find a solution to this problem. Send me a signal when you have solved the problem”)
  3. Re-engage with the task and some insight will occur shortly afterwards. (The programming of my subconscious has now become so powerful over the years that I am often amazed at how quickly it now responds.)
  4. Return to normal – normal (tolerable) levels of stress and a feel-good “buzz” ensues … ahhhhhh

Maintaining the Pressure

The issue that many managers and leaders face is how do we keep our people operating at these high levels of creativity; it should be obvious that to keep the team under sustained pressure would be an unwise strategy. But yet oftentimes there is a conscious decision to continually place “stretch goals” on the team.  If the team feel continually stretched then it is likely that they will “crack” and performance will invariably dip.  The optimal outcome should be “enough” stress to maintain sustained performance.  This will give us more predictability in our outcomes rather than enduring the peaks and troughs.  However we might argue that life and how the work shows up just isn’t like that, it is unpredictable by nature, so we should expect some variance in outputs allow they can be reduced over time.

Command and Control Management doesn’t help

One common trait in Hierarchical and Bureaucratic cultures is a tendency towards command and control behaviour; more specifically still is the tendency to micro-manage. You will notice from the above four steps it didn’t say – “Get your manager to provide the solution” or “get pushed from above”; no, managers over-involving themselves in the team serves only to demotivate the team and improve resentment levels. 

Teams need to be trusted to go ahead and deliver.  The job of the manager and leader is to provide the appropriate environment for that to flourish.  That rarely if ever means more process, more parent-child interactions, more hand-holding and so on.  It does mean providing a clear definition of the problem to be solved along with a clear boundary for the teams to work within.  If the team are having problems and they need some impediments to their progress being removed then that is the time to step in; but do engage in dialogue first to make such the team aren’t coming from a place of “learned helplessness” as the team may have grown dependent on the input of the manager.

Some cautionary words

There are some reading this who might now start to use this information as evidence to continue applying inappropriate levels of stress to the team.  Well please do remember there are other ways too which will help improve performance; building trust and a healthy working environment are just a couple of those things as mentioned above.  However, my experience tells me that some managers want an easy life and don’t want to change their habits well because “that’s worked for me in the past”.  It’s easy for those people to remain in denial and not allow themselves to become aware of the fallout of how much their teams are suffering because of their personal style.  This is where I believe these managers should be supported by the organisation through a programme of coaching that will allow them to start to change their styles, behaviours and mindset.  Many forward-thinking organisations already do this and the results are highly impactful, but choose your coaches wisely.

Conclusion

Also in closing, I would like to say to all those “command and control” managers and leaders out there: Don’t use this information as an excuse to keep your people under sustained or undue amounts of pressure, or worse yet to avoid having to change your style of management or leadership.  Remain in dialogue with the team and inquire from them retrospectively and in an ongoing basis how they have responded to the recent challenges.  Trust is important as we all know and we wouldn’t want to be accused of manipulating the team in order to suit our own cause.

So, in short, some stress is good, but not levels that are too high or over a prolonged period. It is also a very delicate balancing act to find the optimal point on the curve as each team and individual are different, what works for one team may not work for others.