Clich?? or truth?
Ed Miliband, leader of the British Labour Party, hit back at his critics recently using this old adage: ‘What doesn't kill you makes you stronger’. The phrase comes from an original quotation by Nietzsche. Unfortunately Miliband’s comment caused a further attack, and he was then criticised for using tired old clichés. But do such non-fatal attacks actually make you stronger? Is challenge productive or destructive?
It is certainly true that small challenges to our immune system can help us fight off diseases – that’s how vaccinations work. We need the challenge of an unwanted disease, or a negative experience, to inoculate us against future challenges, making us stronger and more resilient.
Resilience has become a buzzword in the management development world. A quick Google search and you can find a whole array of programmes, workshops and courses that promise to build your personal resilience, and even your corporate resilience. Most people now recognise that the world is becoming more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), and as a consequence many are increasingly aware of their stress levels. So it’s natural that people would want to be more resilient to withstand these pressures.
Is stress actually good for us?
In fact, pressure is a key factor in building resilience. To be resilient a system needs to be challenged, at least to a healthy degree - a little bit of stress is good for us. In fact the beneficial effects of a little stress have been known for over 100 years since the times Yerkes & Dodson experimented with dancing mice. These researchers demonstrated that stress, in the form of heating up the mouse’s wire cage – hence the dancing - actually improved their performance, but only up to a point. If the researchers inflicted too much stress (heat), the mice’s performance dropped off significantly. The bell-shaped curve of performance for those dancing mice, shows that we do need some pressure in the system to perform well. This is true of mice and men (and women).
Very often the most successful business leaders have had early life challenges they have had to overcome. Those challenges have made them tough and resilient. Conversely, a number of authors have cited a lack of challenge and the modern phenomena of ‘affluenza’, as a reason for the loss of resilience in younger generations.
The real key in the relationship between pressure and performance, is knowing when the pressure will start to impair your performance; putting you on the downslope of the performance curve. That is when any further pressure can result in a rapid deterioration of your performance, sliding you down to the precipice - point “p” - where performance can at any moment collapse altogether (see diagram).
How do you know when the pressure has become too much? How can we tell that the challenge is not making us stronger, but actually edging us ever closer to collapse? Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules. It is very specific to the individual. It is not about an absolute number of tasks you have to complete, it is about your capability to cope with those tasks. The question you have to answer is: how much is too much for you?
What happens when you underperform?
In the early days of that negative downslope side of the curve, you may not notice you are under delivering until your performance is at least 10 to 20% below par. Once you realise you are under performing, panic may set in and the worry adds to the pressure and impairs your performance even more. Or even worse your boss spots the under performance and, in a misguided attempt to up your game, demands more - adding to the pressure making matters worse, and pushing you further down the downslope.
So how can you tell if you are on the downslope? Initially the signs are subtle and non-specific. There is often a loss of perceptual awareness – so people claim they are fine when they are obviously struggling. Self-esteem starts to become impaired and there is a loss of confidence. Relationships start to become frayed and non-specific health issues may start to arise.
The real secret is to be much more mindful of the amount of pressure you are under. You should only ever be aiming to perform at 85% of your maximum, leaving some room for urgent matters; a crisis or some thinking. Any athlete will tell you it is impossible to run flat out, 100% all the time. And you certainly can’t learn, develop or improve if you are operating flat out permanently. Unfortunately many leaders demand 120% effort. This is of course nonsense. Running at 120% of max is simply 100% less the additional 20%, i.e. 80%.
People who demand such things simply do not understand performance. We need to stay on the upside of the performance curve. Only from there can we build greater capacity. It is only on this side that challenges can make us stronger, we can endure for longer, become more flexible, and increase our resilience.
How can you stay resilient?
So pressure, and the associated experiences of failure, are critical elements for development and increased performance - they are our vaccine. If we make everything too easy, no one fails and we won’t enhance performance. We risk a future scenario in which fewer and fewer people have experienced failure and built their resilience. As a result we are likely to see fewer leaders who are willing to take on the risks and pressures of a place at the top table. A little bit of what they may not like as children (a dose of pressure and the experience of failure) will help to build resilience and higher levels of performance in the future.
For more information about how pressure can affect our performance please see chapter five – Be successful – in Coherence – The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership.