Good and Bad Stress

September 16, 2015 liane

Stress…a concept we’re all familiar with these days. Recent studies suggest that 50% of office workers are experiencing significant stress at work. That’s what caused me to write last week’s post on the tsunami of stress.  But is all stress bad? Is there good stress? This was a question posed to me by a client recently.

Answering that question first requires that I differentiate between two different kinds of stress. The first kind of stress comes from your reaction to external pressures: an increasingly competitive market, failure to meet plan, or a setback in an important project. That’s what most of us think of when we talk about “stressful situations,” and our ideas of what is stressful are quite universal.

The second kind of stress comes from internal pressures. Internal stresses result when your expectations of the world aren’t met; when the situation isn’t allowing you to operate in your preferred way. Unlike external stressors, what constitutes stress for you might be considerably different than for a teammate. For example, for some people, a teammate being too blunt or candid might be exceedingly stressful whereas for someone else, beating around the bush or sugar coating might stress them out. 

Good Stress

So to answer the good stress/bad stress question: yes, the first kind of stress can be good because it can have a positive impact on productivity. Long ago psychologists proved that too little external stress causes stagnation while a moderate amount of stress optimizes performance. (Too much stress and we become immobilized or ineffective.) This concept led to John Kotter’s useful expression “the productive range of distress.”

Bad Stress

But the same is not true of internal stress. When your environment fails to meet your basic needs, the resulting stress is destructive and costly; to you and often to those around you. Because your most basic personal needs are being denied, you will lose focus on the task at hand; become rigid in your thinking; and struggle to get to a productive resolution. For those reasons, internal stress should be resolved promptly.

The Silver Lining

If there is a silver lining to the bad stress it’s that it is usually pretty obvious; and therefore, alerts everyone that something is wrong. Get good at recognizing the signs that you’re starting to get stressed and get serious about fixing the root cause. Don’t be afraid to advocate to get your needs met.

Reduce the Bad Stress to Focus on the Good Stress

If you’re building a high performance team, the answer then is twofold: 1) turn the heat up and down on the external stress to keep people in the productive range of distress; and 2) keep an eagle eye out for signs of internal stress and act quickly to help meet team members’ needs. You might think of the latter as indulging drama, but if you fail to address the root cause of the stress, your business will suffer. Human beings will use up energy and bandwidth on the internal stress first so only when it is resolved or at least reduced will team members get back to effectively dealing with the external stressors.


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