So far, we have seen that stress is a negative experience. We have seen the short-term negative effects that stress hormones can have on your performance, and have seen how stress can contribute to burnout. The Positive Effects of Pressure Sometimes, however, the pressures and demands that may cause stress can be positive in their effect. One example of this is where sportsmen and women flood their bodies with fight-or-flight adrenaline to power an explosive performance. Another example is where deadlines are used to motivate people who seem bored or unmotivated.
We will discuss this briefly here, but throughout the rest of this site we see stress as a problem that needs to be solved. And the Negative… In most work situations jobs, our stress responses causes our performance to suffer. A calm, rational, controlled and sensitive approach is usually called for in dealing with most difficult problems at work: Our social inter-relationships are just too complex not to be damaged by an aggressive approach, while a passive and withdrawn response to stress means that we can fail to assert our rights when we should.
Before we look further at how to manage stress and our performance, it is important to look at the relationship between pressure and performance in a little more detail, first by looking at the idea of the “Inverted-U”, and second by looking at “Flow”. This is the ideal state of concentration and focus that brings excellent performance. Pressure & Performance – the Inverted U The relationship between pressure and performance is explained in one of the oldest and most important ideas in stress management, the “Inverted-U” relationship between pressure and performance (see below).
The Inverted-U relationship focuses on people’s performance of a task. The left hand side of the graph is easy to explain for pragmatic reasons. When there is very little pressure on us to carry out an important task, there is little incentive for us to focus energy and attention on it. This is particularly the case when there may be other, more urgent, or more interesting, tasks competing for attention. As pressure on us increases, we enter the “area of best performance”. Here, we are able to focus on the task and perform well – there is enough pressure on us to focus our attention but not so much that it disrupts our performance.
The right hand side of the graph is more complex to explain. Negative Thoughts Crowd Our Minds We are all aware that we have a limited short-term memory: If you try to memorize a long list of items, you will not be able to remember more than six or eight items unless you use formal memory techniques. Similarly, although we have huge processing power in our brains, we cannot be conscious of more than a few thoughts at any one time. In fact, in a very real way, we have a limited “attentional capacity”. As we become uncomfortably stressed, distractions, difficulties, anxieties and negative thinking begin to crowd our minds.
This is particularly the case where we look at our definition of stress, i. e. that it occurs when a person perceives that “demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize. ” These thoughts compete with performance of the task for our attentional capacity. Concentration suffers, and focus narrows as our brain becomes overloaded. As shown in the figure, this is something of a slippery slope: the more our brain is overloaded, the more our performance can suffer. The more our performance suffers, the more new distractions, difficulties, anxieties and negative thoughts crowd our minds.
Other research has shown that stress reduces people’s ability to deal with large amounts of information. Both decision-making and creativity are impaired because people are unable to take account of all the information available. This inability accounts for the common observation that highly stressed people will persist in a course of action even when better alternatives are available. It also explains why anxious people perform best when they are put under little additional stress, while calm people may need additional pressure to produce a good performance.
Notes on the research behind the Inverted-U: While this is an important and useful idea, people’s evaluations of stress and performance are by necessity subjective. This has made it difficult to prove the ‘Inverted-U’ idea formally. Also, for ease of explanation, we show a smooth curve here. In reality, different people have different shaped and positioned inverted-Us at different times and in different circumstances. This is all part of “life’s rich tapestry”. Entering a State of “Flow”
When you are operating in your “area of best performance”, you are normally able to concentrate, and focus all of your attention on the important task at hand. When you do this without distraction, you often enter what Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Chicago University describes as a state of ‘flow’. This involves “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost”.
You perform at your best in this state because you are able to focus all of your efforts, resources and abilities on the tasks at hand. While you are sufficiently motivated to resist competing temptations, you are not so stressed that anxieties and distractions interfere with clear thought. This is an intensely creative, efficient and satisfying state of mind. It is the state of mind in which, for example, the most persuasive speeches are made, the best software is developed, and the most impressive athletic or artistic performances are delivered.
Helping Yourself to Get Into Flow One of the frustrations of management is that managers can feel that they lose the ‘right’ to these periods of deep concentration when they must be readily available to others, and be able to deal with the constantly changing information, decisions and activities around them. Studies of good managers show that they rarely get more than a few minutes alone without distraction. This alone can be frustrating, and can contribute strongly to managerial stress.
In jobs where concentration is a rare commodity, there are various solutions to creating the periods of flow that sustain good performance. Solutions include working from home, or setting aside parts of the day as quiet periods. Another solution might be to delegate the activities that require the greatest levels of concentration, allowing the manager to concentrate on problems as they arise, serving to create a flow of its own. One of the key aims of this site is to help you manage stress so that you can enter this state of flow, and deliver truly excellent performance in your career.