Removing or creating stress for optimal performance. Eustress vs Distress.
Too much stress or too little stress can cause issues. We'll discuss how to dial that in, and create a high-performance and high retention team.
Years ago at Amazon, I was the co-author of a proposal to change an Amazon policy. Up to that point, employees weren't allowed to change teams unless they had been on their team for at least 12-months.
One argument for the policy was that people would change teams if they were underperforming, and dodge the consequences of their poor performance. Another argument was that people couldn't really contribute to a team unless they'd ramped up for a few months, so it wouldn't be fair to have people move without adding value to their new team.
Regardless of their excuses, we ended up getting the policy changed, allowing employees to change teams when they'd like. As a result, I got some nasty emails from VPs/Directors who thought I was going to cause the destruction of Amazon. Funny stuff.
How did I get passionate enough about this policy to spend time changing it?
A bit earlier at Amazon, I was working on recruiting and retention for our larger organization. Essentially, I was trying to calculate how many people we needed to hire, on what teams, and how long people stuck around. Basic data gathering, necessary to come up with recruiting forecasts.
What stood out to me was that some teams had pretty drastic differences in tenure.
There was one particular group which had a very strange tenure pattern. Right at the 12-month mark, almost every single employee would transfer to another team.
I spoke to the manager, who said it was just "a hard space to work in." Then I spoke to the members of their team.
If they went on-call, they'd be paged a dozen times a day. If a feature request came in, it was always a high priority. Every single thing was always an emergency.
Yes, that team was a hard space to work in, but it was a hard space because the stress level was permanently dialed to 11. No one can operate that way for long.
In today's article, I'm going to chat about the negative impacts of high stress, and how to dial things down. I'm also going to speak to the (perhaps surprising) negative impacts of low stress, and how to dial things up a bit.
This isn't simply for managers. Stress management is a major aspect of how we all interact, and it's the responsibility of everyone to ensure a properly stressful working environment.
What do I mean by stress? Eustress and Distress.
When I refer to stress, I don't mean, "I feel sick to my stomach, I'm so stressed because my manager is a jerk." To differentiate stress, I'm going to refer to two major types of stress.
Eustress - Great word. It's a healthy level of stress. The kind coming from deadlines, learning new things, or stretching to achieve a goal.
Distress - An unhealthy type of stress. The kind caused by interpersonal conflict, a lack of autonomy, or high levels of career risk.
Distress is bad. It's bad for your health, and for your performance. It makes your job worse. Less distress is simply better.
The type of stress I'll refer to is eustress. The main reason I'm not using that word is that it's very uncommon, and it'd make the article more confusing.
By the way, another word for the type of stress I'm referring to is arousal (see chart below). However, I didn't feel like writing an article which explains the importance of arousal at work.
The downside of too much stress.
I'm referring to the types of stress which can cause eustress (the good stress). Deadlines. Goals. Learning new things. How can this be bad?
Think back to the story at the beginning of this article. What was an example of what went wrong?
One high-priority project isn't bad. It can create unity across the team. It can create the right level of energy and attention on a critical project.
I've had multiple situations like this come up:
"Hey, we have this awesome opportunity to announce this feature in a New York Times article. Only if we can get it launched by June 15th.. do you think we can do it?"
That can be fun for the whole team. It can be energizing to kick things into high gear, and see what you can deliver when you put your mind to it.
And then the date comes, and the launch happens. What do you need now? You need a break! You need to vacuum your house, have that dentist appointment you'd rescheduled, and perhaps watch some Netflix.
But what happens when your launch happens, and the next launch is critical, and the next one?
You never get to dial it down. Your performance suffers because that exciting stress turns into anxiety. Too much of a good stress (eustress) becomes distress.
That distress leads to exhaustion. You feel a lack of autonomy when you're continually pressured. Not to mention the added stress of the impact it can have on your health, your family, and your friends.
What can you do about it?