Better change through more stress?

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Jeff Cole

Man clutching head screaming

Sidewalks are jammed with pedestrians tugging away at $5.00 Grande Supremo coffees to stay awake for a stressful workday. Yoga studios are filled at night with people trying to come down off their caffeine/stress highs of the day. What constitutes stress to you? Some may think their whole life is ruined if Instagram is down for an hour. The single mom raising 3 kids and working 2 jobs may have a different perception.  So might a soldier on patrol in a combat zone.  

Take a good look at your co-workers. It may be hard to observe, but the people surrounding you are likely all over the place on the “stress curve”. And, if you are in the business of driving process change, you may be about to hit them in the face with another shovel-full of stress!

How much stress is too much and can we be productive without any stress?  These are questions studied over the decades. One interesting study from the early 1900s has stood the test of time and is often referenced: The Yerkes-Dodson Law which states that optimal performance is achieved under stress but degrades when faced with too much stress. Too little stress leads to sub-optimal performance as well. The key is to get into the optimal performance zone.

Where someone resides on the Yerkes-Dodson Scale can impact the extent to which they can assimilate your proposed process change – which will likely take some mental, physical, emotional and possible financial resources to absorb.

What does that mean to us? Optimal performance is achieved when people are under moderate amounts of stress. Obviously, there’s “good” stress and “bad” stress. So, a moderate amount of good stress might provide best results. Too much stress and you tilt into the unhealthy zone. And remember – stress accumulates from both work situations and life outside work. Those people in your office are dragging around large invisible bags of stress from their personal lives in addition to the bags of stress waiting for them on their desks each day.

“Dude, I guess I’ll have to wake up and do this project…”
What if you are rolling out a process improvement into a low-key environment where people are laid back and feel zero pain with the way the process works today?  You may benefit from nudging the stress level up a bit to create more of a sense of urgency - ambitious deadlines, milestone reporting, teach-back to confirm understanding, communications to create an urgency frame of reference, etc. 

“What do you mean another project!?!?!”
Jacking up the stress level might be the wrong strategy for workers on the other end of the scale, who are already living close to the red-zone of unhealthy stress levels. Your project could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. There are a couple tactics to consider here.  

  • Can you take some things off those people’s plates or adjust the timing of those other things to lower stress and free up the required bandwidth to take on your process improvement at optimal levels?   
  • Are they under some current stressors that will resolve themselves in the short term? If so, can you delay the timing of your improvement to take advantage of a period of lower stress?  
  • If it is a large improvement – can it be broken down into smaller phases or pieces rolled out over time that would be less burdensome on the audience?
  • Can you start with a less invasive “light” version of your new process and stair-step your way into the full version at the appropriate time?
  • If it is a multi-location rollout, can you change the location of the pilot to one where the addition of your process change could be handled at only medium stress levels and achieve optimal results?

Bottom line
It may sound counter-intuitive that more stress could be the answer, but as always, it’s about picking the right strategy for the right situation. Now, if you’ll excuse me, a particularly pugnacious squirrel is sending my dog’s stress level into the red zone and I have to de-escalate… Happy change!