Whether, When, and How to Push a Team

Great bosses know how to build, and how to push a team.

Demanding excellence will mean pushing people.

How exactly do you push someone? How do you know the right time, and the right way?

Here’s what you need to know.

Your follower wants (and even needs) a certain amount of tension or pressure — internal or external — to perform well. Maybe it’s a small amount, but it’s almost never zero. As Publilius Syrus put it around 50 BC: “Tension weakens the bow; the want of it, the mind.”

It’s come to be called the Yerkes-Dodson Law:

The Yerkes–Dodson law is an empirical relationship between arousal and performance, originally developed by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908. The law dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. ~Wikipedia

Here’s an illustration of the concept. As you see, we each perform best in a range of tension levels. (“Tension” is described by scientists Yerkes and Dodson as “central nervous system arousal” or “CNS arousal”.)


This gives us the idea of there being three zones of stress: Unstressed, Eustress (i.e. “good” stress), and Distress.

(This later evolved via Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to understanding what it means to be “in flow” or “in the zone.” The demand of a task is perfectly balanced against our abilities — a euphoric state of optimal performance. Great bosses do their best to get themselves into flow, and get their teams there too. See: Leaders Boost Productivity)

We’ve all experienced these three forms of stress ourselves — when sometimes a deadline, or an audience, or some other performance pressure will drive our performance up, and at other times those same stressors drive our performance down.

Bosses must both increase and decrease stress

As a boss, your role is to move your people, each based on their unique aspects and personality, into optimal performance. That means knowing how — and when — to increase and decrease tension.

Consider this illustration. Suppose your direct report Chris is performing at level P. You know Chris can perform better.

If you know Chris well, you’ll also have a pretty good idea whether Chris is at P1 (below the low end of her personal Eustress area) or P2 (above the high end).

When to push

If it’s P1, you will do yourself, Chris and the team a favor by tightening the screws a bit. The payoff will be better performance, and a reputation as a boss who can push people effectively to drive results — and bring out people’s best work. Everyone including Chris will thank you.

How to push

You can push Chris by doing any number of things, such as adding a time limit or shortening one, by setting or raising a performance target or success criterion, naming or raising the stakes (payoff for success and cost of failure). or creating an audience.

Here are examples:

  • Add a time limit: you could tell Chris you need the work done in half the time previously given
  • Set a performance target: you could tell Chris that her quota is higher in the new period (never retroactively raise a quota)
  • Name the stakes – you could spell out for Chris the payoff to her, the team, the firm, or the client of getting this work done well, or spell out the cost of failing to (you must of course tell the truth)
  • Create an audience – you could tell Chris that you’ve invited experts from other departments to review and learn from her work (true professionals care about the opinions of their peers)

But if Chris is actually at P2, your move backfires. Chris’s performance craters, and you look like a cruel jerk.

Increasing stress is not a universally safe strategy.Neither is decreasing it.

When to ease up

Suppose you believe Chris is at P2, and you ease up. You take some work off her plate, you relax a deadline, or you find other resources or ways to give Chris some relief from being on the verge of distress. Once again, if you guessed right, you get a payoff that enriches you, Chris and the team: a boost in performance, along with a reputation as a caring boss.

But if you guess wrong and Chris was really at P1, your intervention backfires. Chris slacks off due to being Unstressed, and the team gets resentful. You get a reputation as spineless. Top performers start to look for other bosses.

Easing up is essentially the reverse of the above stress-enhancing moves. Since you’re doing regular One-on-Ones with Chris and all your other directs, you know what things most stress Chris out. If unsure, ask Chris how to best reduce her load to something more manageable.

Making hard things easy

Up to now we’ve treated the work as having a fixed level of challenge. But of course that’s not true. Over time, all work gets easier as the worker masters their craft.

When the work gets easier, performance will typically be higher at all stress levels. The optimal level may actually move up — some veteran performers only do their best work in front of the same sort of crowd that used to terrify them (and destroy their performance) when they were novices.

There’s a lot you can do to speed this journey of making hard work easy.

There are six major ways (and of course many minor ones) to make a hard task easier:

  1. Give (or remind them of) the clear and noble purpose of the work
  2. Set a clear target condition to be achieved
  3. Provide or improve the stepwise method for reaching the target condition
  4. Guide workers in deliberate practice
  5. Provide training on the stepwise method
  6. Provide job aids such as templates

Stress training

Lastly, you can both widen the zone of optimal performance and greatly increase the level of tolerable stress, by providing stress training.

Think of an airline pilot who gets strapped into a flight simulator. She has to save her plane from multiple simulated emergencies, each one slightly harder. She takes breaks in between to rest, reflect, and study, and to receive coaching and training from more experienced pilots.

Remember, as a boss you don’t have to be a trainer.

You can get a lot of mileage by having your best people create simple yet formalized training and in-house certification.

Once you’ve established your best people as peer trainers, you can ask them to create some simple stress training scenarios and to create some of the other needed items. What noble purpose do they each experience? What job aids could they create? How can the stepwise method be improved or simplified?

Bottom Line

Here’s the sequence to follow:

  1. Get to know each person on your team well.
  2. Learn the signs each one gives when unstressed, eustressed, and distressed.
  3. Practice the skills of increasing and decreasing pressure on your people.
  4. Have your people create their own tools for making the work easier.
  5. Provide stress training and cross-training to make your team resilient

Before you know it, you’re a Best Boss.

Tagged with: , ,