In the LinkedIn discussion that I mentioned in the previous post, the question arose as to whether stress was motivational. The question was expressed as: What impact do you think stress has on innovation – does it hinder or help the creative process? Does Stress work like the “fight or Flight” response?

I think that this is more than a fair question, and my response to it will be pretty straightforward as well as illustrated with a couple of cartoons.

My question back is, “Whose stress is it?”  What is the source of the stress and how does the individual react to it? What other stresses already exist and is this the straw that breaks the back of the camel?

If the performer sees a gap between where they are and where they want to be, that will usually generate “a stress” — consider it a motivational drive. That can be very positive since it is self-generated and usually healthy if that gap is perceived to be something that can be closed and the goal achieved. I think of that old work on “Cognitive Dissonance” (Leon Festinger in the 1950s) that clearly explains and researches this issue.

If this gap is one that is highly desirable and the gap cannot be closed, then it has the potential to become problematic: an obsession. But I am not going to get into those kinds of issues. What I want to focus on is the issue of stress in the workplace as it has to do with organizational performance results and accomplishments.

Stress when driven from outside the individual can be motivational; it has the potential to be a positive, driving force especially when it comes from someone perceived to be a trusted supporter or mentor or manager. It is often perceived as good advice and it often helps generate “considered alternatives and choices” that are different from the ones currently in practice.

This kind of pressure from other individuals, or too much pressure to change can feel something like the following to most people in the workforce:

Gulliver is part of the Square Wheels® series of organizational development cartoons

Pressure can have predictable consequences when it comes to motivation

Pressure can cause people to freeze and become helpless, as can pain and other kinds of externally driven “motivators.” The work of Marty Seligman on conditioned helplessness supports that fact that many externally applied pressures can have negative, adverse impacts on people and performance.

My experience and perception is that this continuous outside stress will often generate a fairly predictable workplace response that looks something like this:

From the Square Wheels® series of cartoons. Protected by copyright

Defense is the reaction to outside threats and results in collaboration and teamwork!

People can logically be expected to defend themselves from outside threats and challenges, sometimes pulling together in unexpected ways to help each other. This kind of teamwork is not productive and little gets done, but if people are pushed, they will often push back, predictably.

Continued pressure from outside, where there is not an obvious collaborative solution, will result in further development of the defensive perimeter. The former situation can usuall be easily resolved, while this latter position requires a lot more attention:

People feeling pressured will construct elaborate defenses to protect themselves

People feeling pressured will construct elaborate defenses to protect themselves and their associates

So, is stress motivating? Is it stress that generates innovation and creativity?

I would reframe the concept of Stress into one of “Discomfort with the way things are. Now.” This is one of the four parts of my model for managing and leading change and a key component of motivating people to improve performance.  If they are comfortable with how things are, the motivation for change is predictably lower than if they have an idea as to what they might do differently.

Choosing to do things differently is a key to continuous continuous improvement of self and team, of personal accomplishments and organizational improvement.

Our toolkit on “Teaching the Caterpillar to Fly” has a lot to say about our model of change and how one can better involve and engage people for workplace improvement and personal growth.

Creating stress to increase innovation is not a really good strategy, in my opinion.

We can do things better and differently.

For the FUN of It!

Scott Debrief

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant. 
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