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Are your employees weighed down by work pressure?

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The discipline of talent optimization outlines how leaders can create high-performing teams. Managers often think that high-performance means high-pressure (think: cultures of perfectionism and overachieving), when in fact, that relationship is more nuanced than you’d think.

High performance meets high pressure

Pressure motivates employees to excel and achieve, but hinders performance if it gets too high—a concept popularly known as the “performance pressure paradox.” When this happens, survival is prioritized over success, and negative emotions (like stress and anxiety) hijack employees’ potential for smart, creative thinking.

What too much work pressure looks like in your employees

How can you tell whether your employees are under too much work pressure? The signs often go unnoticed, especially if your team is still producing adequate results.

A study by Harvard Business School professor Heidi K. Gardner showed that when employees feel threatened or anxious under pressure, they tend to:

  • Make the “safest” choice, rather than the most innovative or creative one
  • Use “groupthink,” rather than referring to their specialized skills, knowledge, and abilities
  • Suppress vital knowledge
  • Produce more generic and standardized output

Clearly, when employees are focused on “surviving” rather than “thriving,” they aren’t delivering on their full potential, accessing their unique strengths, or drawing on their reserve of acquired knowledge and experience—the very things that make them assets to your team.

Needless to say, this phenomenon severely limits the team’s capacity, slows progress, and demotes it from high-performing status to merely “adequate” in its deliverables. The bottom line: Your team cannot thrive under threat.

What managers can do to create a challenging but safe workplace

“Pressure” may be a universally understood concept, but it’s experienced individually. Just as every employee has unique strengths and behavioral drives, so too do they have unique stress triggers and responses to pressure.

Managers can gain insights into their employees’ stressors, tendencies, and motivations by using behavioral assessments. They can then leverage these insights to strategically drive their communication toward clarity and trust.

Trust and clear, transparent communication are essential ingredients of psychological safety, which recent studies show is the most foundational element of a team’s success.

To foster a challenging, non-threatening environment and cultivate psychological safety, managers should:

  • Encourage progress over perfection; recognizing each individual’s goals and potential
  • Deliver constructive feedback in a personalized and confidential manner
  • Value diverse perspectives, being sure not to marginalize any ideas
  • Instill a sense of self-efficacy, while offering ongoing support
  • Communicate expectations clearly and consistently
  • Replace judgment with curiosity; asking open-ended questions
  • Approach conflict as a collaboration
  • Frame new information within familiar contexts

Finding the work pressure “sweet spot”

In safety, your team has the resources to pursue new horizons—resources that aren’t being wasted in an effort to stay afloat. Progress, connection, innovation: All of these ingredients of success only flourish under proper work pressure conditions. The key is finding that sweet spot, and analytics can help.

Using analytics, managers can optimize their leadership approach to create an open, safe, and motivating environment; one that leverages team potential and drives high performance.

Elior Moskowitz is a research analyst and neuroscience writer at the American Confidence Institute. The Boston-based content creator specializes in psychology, work performance, and wellbeing. Her work can be found in various major business journals and lifestyle publications. Elior holds a B.A. in psychology and English, with special training in both positive psychology and mental health counseling.

Elior is a research analyst at the American Confidence Institute.

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