A little anxiety may be just what you need to perform at your peak. It’s a notion first suggested by Harvard psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson in 1908. They found that anxiety enhances performance, but only to a point. When it gets too high, performance suffers.
This is depicted in their inverted U-model, known as the Yerkes-Dodson curve, showing how performance at any task varies with arousal in a predictable parabolic curve.
Current studies show that mildly elevated stress hormones actually help the brain to learn better. However, Michigan State University psychologist Jason Moser cautions that high anxiety can make even simple tasks more difficult.
Finding the sweet spot
The Yerkes-Dodson Law depicts three stages: disengagement, frazzle and flow. Each of these has an effect on a person’s ability to perform at their best; disengagement and frazzle thwarts people’s efforts, while flow lets them soar.
In the workplace, disengagement is displayed by people who are bored and disinterested. Lacking in motivation, they plod along doing just enough.
Those who are overwhelmed by pressure are so frazzled by an overload of stress hormones that they lose the ability to work well.
Employees in a state of flow, however, are like star athletes. ‘Good stress’ makes them more productive, customer-focused, and loyal to the business.
Studies show that the best-performing organisations are staffed by people who are fully engaged. Because they are in the optimal arousal and performance zone, as indicated on the Yerkes-Dodson curve, they are motivated and energised by just enough stress to do the job well.
Related: Are You A Negative Leader?
The value of consistent, manageable pressure
To build a team of top performers, managers need to pay attention to creating pathways
Ensure that work demands are aligned with the employees’ skills. If they’re under-engaged, increase the challenge in ways that make their work more interesting and exciting. If they are feeling overwhelmed, reduce the demand and give them more support.
Help people to develop their skills and expertise so that they are better prepared to meet a higher level of demand.
Find ways to capture employees’ attention and enhance their abilities to concentrate. People who ‘wander off’ may be doing so because anxiety is harming their cognitive abilities. The less we are distracted, the more effective we become.