Does stress get a bad rap?

Stress Reading The Motivated Brain by Gayle Gregory and Martha Kaufeldt—referenced in my previous post—I was reminded of the Yerkes-Dodson Law of Arousal.

I’m sure you think about this all the time, but I had to re-familiarize myself with it. According to YD, increased arousal—stress, pressure—usually helps improve performance, up to a point.

Stress, pressure, or tension from pushing ourselves mentally, physically, or emotionally gets the juices flowing to help us produce the desired result. But too much stress can be overwhelm us and diminish productivity.

In the music world I see performers play better when there’s something at stake. I can personally attest to the fact that playing in front of thousands at the Hollywood Bowl gets you going in a way that rehearsing in your garage doesn’t. (That might qualify as a “duh.”)

The energy rush—specifically the flood of endorphins—from facing a huge audience enables you to do certain things (play with more energy, hit higher notes with your voice, etc.) that you might not be able to do otherwise. If the stakes are really high—e.g., performing on national TV for millions of viewers for the first time, or auditioning live for a major record company—even experienced performers can be so nervous that it inhibits their performance, though some of them get over it quickly.

In business I see executives testing their managers by regularly placing them in stressful situations—e.g., requiring them to produce an aggressive result in a tight time frame or sell a controversial idea in a meeting with skeptical senior management. All good development opportunities. But when it’s all-stress-all-the-time, productivity goes down the tubes, along with health. See my earlier post on the Amazon culture, as described by the NY Times, as well as research here on the ill effects of chronic stress.

Finding that right amount of stress—the Goldilocks Principle of “not too little,” “not too much”—is of course the challenge.

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  1. Excellent stuff. Nice way to get the word "arousal" into your posts. Perhaps every commenter can repeat it, and you can hit the first page of Google for the word.

    And will you be sharing some tips on finding the Goldilocks of Stress? I could use it.

    On the other end of the spectrum is preposterous stuff like the book I won't name suggesting that practicing for life by stepping into a cold shower regularly. Hey, let's try to kill the instinctive startle response because that will make us better able to cope, right?

    Then, if we could all eliminate sensations of hunger, pain, and sadness, so we no longer react to those evil feelings, we're all golden, eh?


    When you mention YT in the second paragraph, do you mean YD, or something else I missed?

  2. The good leaders I've worked with understand that the optimum amount of "challenge" is different for different individuals and manage accordingly.

  3. There's two angles to this: finding the right amount of arousal/pressure/stress/tension for oneself and finding the right amount for others. Most of us know what works for us, but it's trickier to recognize what works for our team members or those we manage. I don't have any tips for that, except to pay attention! Unfortunately, too many leaders don't.

    A personal note: in business there's definitely a point after which too much stress/pressure is counterproductive for me—and it will affect my health. In music that point has been pushed so far out I don't where it is any more. I do get nervous singing/playing in front of audiences now, because I only recently started doing that again publicly, but that fear dissipates quickly once I'm underway.

    This may all be reducible to the fact that for me music is always PLAY. I think business should be too, but that's not the world we live in...yet.

    1. On a personal level, this is why it's important for me to stay self-employed. The stress of interacting regularly in a corporate environment (even the most positive) is out of my reach for various reasons (one being increasing social anxieties as I get older.)

      Do you see a day when business will become, in the main, play, or will our grandchildren still be grumbling about the 9 to 5?

      1. Well, in the Innovation Economy—especially in hi-tech—people are encouraged, of course, to think outside the grooves and find new ways to do things. Not just with new products and services, but finding new ways to run the business and even new ways to imagine the business. That means you try stuff out, tinker and diddle, and even screw things up ("fail fast") on the way to discovering something valuable. But this requires a mindset of playfulness—thus the term "serious play." I've been speaking and blogging about that for eight years (including the obstacles to that). For instance, here.

        So, in answer to your question, the importance of PLAY—at least in the context of innovation—has been recognized by many business leaders, but developing a culture based on play—especially in large organizations—remains a work-in-progress for most. (Come to think of it, I happen to know someone who teaches businesses how to develop that culture.)

        1. Well, whoever that is, they're brilliant and somebody needs to put them to work. Lazy slacker. Probably out busking on street corners playing old Lowell George tunes.

          Sea changes in work culture seem to trend downward. The concept of a "job" ain't that old, nor that of the general market (as opposed to the specialty shop.) Yet both seem firmly entrenched.

          We'll see how things shake out over the next 50 years as the Millennials and Posties become the dinosaurs of the workplace.

          1. I used to play "Willin'."

            Yeah, let's check back on this in a half-century. I'll still be around. The good die young.

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