Balancing Pressure and Performance
(Also known as Yerkes-Dodson Law)
Have you ever worked on a project that had a tight-but-achievable deadline, and that needed your unique, expert knowledge for it to be completed successfully? Even though you found it challenging, you may have delivered some of your best work.
Or, think back to a project you worked on where there was little pressure to deliver. The deadline was flexible and the work wasn’t challenging. You may have done an average job, at best.
There’s a subtle relationship between pressure and performance. When your people experience the right amount of pressure, they do their best work. However, if there’s too much or too little pressure, then performance can suffer.
This relationship is explained by the Inverted-U Model, which we’ll look at in this article. This helps you get the best from your people, at the same time that you keep them happy and engaged.
About the Model
The Inverted-U model (also known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law), was created by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson as long ago as 1908. Despite its age, it’s a model that has stood the test of time.
It shows the relationship between pressure (or arousal) and performance.
According to the model, peak performance is achieved when people experience a moderate level of pressure. Where they experience too much or too little pressure, their performance declines, sometimes severely.
The left hand side of the graph shows the situation where people are under-challenged. Here, they see no reason to work hard at a task, or they’re in danger of approaching their work in a “sloppy,” unmotivated way.
The middle of the graph shows where they’re working at peak effectiveness. They’re sufficiently motivated to work hard, but they’re not so overloaded that they’re starting to struggle. This is where people can enter a state of “Flow,” the enjoyable and highly productive state in which they can do their best work.
The right hand side of the graph shows where they’re starting to “fall apart under pressure.” They’re overwhelmed by the volume and scale of competing demands on their attention, and they may be starting to panic.
The Four Influencers
The shape of the Inverted-U curve shown in figure 1 is for illustration only – in reality, the shape of the curve will depend on the situation, and the individual person.
There are four main “influencers” that can affect this*. These are:
- Skill Level.
- Trait Anxiety.
- Task Complexity.
We’ll now look at each influencer in greater detail:
People’s levels of skill with a given task directly influence how well they perform, which is why you need to train your people intensively if you want them to cope in high-pressure situations.
For instance, if they’re not practiced enough to do a task, they’ll feel under serious pressure, and they won’t perform well. What’s more, people are less able to think in a flexible, methodical way when they’re under pressure, which is why they need to be able to fall back on well-rehearsed responses.
A person’s personality also affects how well he or she performs.
For instance, some psychologists believe that people who are extroverts are likely to perform better in high-pressure situations. People with an introverted personality, on the other hand, may perform better with less pressure.
Think of trait anxiety as the level of a person’s “self-talk.” People who are self-confident are more likely to perform better under pressure. This is because their self-talk is under control, which means that they can stay “in flow,” and they can concentrate fully on the situation at hand. By contrast, people who criticize or question themselves are likely to be distracted by their self-talk, which can cause them to lose focus in pressurized situations.
The more that people are able to lower their anxiety about a task (with practice, or with positive thinking, for example) the better they’ll perform.
Task complexity describes the level of attention and effort that people have to put into a task in order to complete it successfully. People can perform simple activities under quite high levels of pressure, while complex activities are better performed in a calm, low-pressure environment.
Remember that these are only influences. With experienced, good people, their self-discipline and sense of professionalism should help them avoid performance issues on the left hand side of the graph. Their training and experience will also help them on the right hand side of the graph, although there is a point at which even experienced professionals may become so overwhelmed that their work suffers.
Using the Model
The simplest way to use the Inverted-U Model is to be aware of it when you allocate tasks and projects to people on your team.
Most importantly, start by thinking about people’s workloads, and about the pressure that they’re already experiencing. If people are overloaded, see if you can take pressure off them – this will help them increase the quality of their work. By contrast, if they’re underworked (it can happen!), you may need to keep them sharp by shortening deadlines or finding extra things for them to do.
From there, balance the influences that contribute to pressure, so that your people can perform at their best.
For instance, try to provide team members with tasks and projects of an appropriate level of complexity, and work to build confidence in people who need it.
Also, manage negativity in your team, and train your people so that they have the skills they need to do a good job. (Our article on Training Needs Assessment will help you do this.) Tools like the Four Dimensions of Relational Work can also help you match tasks to people’s personalities and interpersonal skills.
However, bear in mind that you won’t be able to balance influences in all situations, so make sure that you know how to motivate your team effectively, so that you can help them perform in all situations.
Although not addressed as part of the Inverted-U Model, it’s also important to remember that people can experience pressure from other sources (for instance, from their personal lives or from any underlying concerns about their role or organization). Bear these external pressures in mind when setting deadlines and allocating tasks.
Don’t worry about people becoming too skilled or too confident – you can use the other influencers to balance this, so that they feel the optimum amount of pressure to perform at their best.
Don’t, whatever you do, confuse “pressure” with “stress” in this model. Stress is all about people feeling out of control, and it’s a wholly negative thing. If you seek to increase people’s stress (rather than increasing positive pressure), all you’ll do is create an unhappy, under-performing workplace.
The Inverted-U Model illustrates the relationship between pressure and performance. According to the model, there is an optimum level of pressure at which people perform at their best. Too much or too little pressure can lead to decreased performance.
There are four main “influencers” that can affect how much pressure people feel:
- Skill Level.
- Trait Anxiety.
- Task Complexity.
You can use the model by managing these four influencers, and by being aware of how they can positively or negatively influence your people’s performance.