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Use Good Stress to Improve Retention and Push People Harder!


Check google and it is all about lowering stress at work.  Workplace stress seems to be an epidemic.  As leaders, we are challenged to lower the pressure.  Take it easy on our people.  Do not demand more, better, faster, safer, or cheaper.  People will quit if you put them under stress.  You cannot have high expectations with today’s fragile workforce.  Sound familiar?

My research finds the opposite.   Top performers are quitting because they are bored and don’t feel challenged.  They feel underutilized and are underwhelmed. The idea that stress is bad is only partly true.  There are two types of stress at work.  Negative stress is feeling overwhelmed and out of control.  Positive stress is being challenged out of our comfort zone.  The distinction is important because leaders can use positive stress to retain high-performers on the job.  Think of stress on spectrum.  Negative stress is on one end and positive stress is on the other end.  If you need another analogy, think good cholesterol and bad cholesterol.

Parkinson’s Law states work is expanded to fill available time.  People will spread work out to meet the time requirement.  If we are expected to work eight hours, we spread our activity over that period.  Over time, people feel the impact of spreading out the work.  Intuitively, they know they have more to offer.  Boredom sets in, and they start to consider other work opportunity.

Horstman’s Corollary states work contracts to the time we allow for it.  The boss walks into your office and tells you to prepare a speech for a meeting starting in 15 minutes.  You require laser focus to get the work done and cannot overthink or over analyze your activity.

The idea that stress is bad is a myth.  Our bodies are built for stress, both physically and physiologically.  In fact, we need stress to grow physically and feel valued mentally.  Negative stress is usually a byproduct of fear and failure.  It is the story we tell ourselves.  Positive stress is about growth and learning.  Both types of stress bond us as humans.  We bond with other people through shared stress, good and bad. 

Sabastian Junger studied survivors of the London bombing by the Germans during World War II.  These people (much later in life) describe that period as one of the best times of their lives.  For 57 days, Germany bombed the City of London.  By day, people attempted to live a normal life.  By night, they crawled into the tunnels and sewers below the city.  Each day, they crawled out of these holes to determine what was left and live a normal life.  Over and over the process repeated itself.  When asked why they saw this time so favorably, they stated because we become so close to each other.  People fell in love in those holes underground.  Babies were born.

Military units remain in contact for many years after experiencing stress together.  Shawn Achor, in the Harvard Business Review, “After centuries of practice, the military has learned that if you go through stress 1) with the right lens and 2) with other people, you can create meaningful narratives and social bonds that people will talk about for the rest of their lives. And those bonds might just keep people in an organization, even where they’re probably getting paid less than in the private sector and might even be less safe. That’s because instead of viewing stress as a threat to happiness, organizations like the military derive their culture from the pride of being able to overcome challenges together.”

We are learning that teams under the optimum amount of stress are valuable to attracting and retaining top talent.  Avoiding stress actually causes a negative flight or fight reflex that results in physical symptoms like headache and fatigue.

In my team building sessions, I create stress labs that bond participants together.  While they think they are just playing games and competing with each other, they are actually part of a deliberate learning activity that becomes clear during the debriefing session.  The psychological implications of competition are powerful when deployed to create unity for people.  We also utilize share negative events in life to create vulnerability.  We have discovered that being vulnerable with a team is the prerequisite for trust.  Trust becomes the bonding agent for strong teams.

To deploy stress properly, remember that collective experiences are powerful.  Putting a team together at work can be an effective tool to retain top performers.  Push people (individually and collectively) harder and remove the fear of failure.  Negative stress comes from fear.  Positive stress comes from opportunity and growth.  If people are pushed to grow, the response is positive even if failure happens.  They feel stronger for the experience.

Teach your leaders to challenge people with opportunity.  Culture is defined by the words we use.  Telling someone they can do more and you believe in them is powerful.  Keep people from becoming comfortable as a pathway toward complacency.  Our comfort zone is a negative place when it comes to growth and retention.  Top performers want to be challenged because it is the pathway toward opportunity.  Create goals that are just out of reach.  Avoid traditional SMART goals that are “attainable and realistic”.  Instead, opt for ambitious goals.  Opt for radical goals.

Sports have always been a powerful metaphor for life to me.  It is the laboratory for success in life.  A coach that believes you can do more than you believe you can is inspirational.  A boss that believes you can do more is equally inspirational.  Train your supervisors to deploy good stress and top performers will stay.  Opt for the easy button and top performers will leave.  It may sound counterintuitive, but the harder you push people, the more they want to perform as long as they know you have their interest in mind. 

Be more like a drill sergeant than a baby sitter.  The most important lesson I teach supervisors, managers, and executives (including CEOs) is people want to be challenged more than they want to be liked.  They already have a mother that loves them.  They need you to push them.