With Martin G. Moore

Episode #148

Stretching Your People (Without Breaking Them)

Everyone has different levels of mental capability, emotional capacity, resilience, drive, and ambition. To make things even harder, on any given day these can vary for an individual, depending on what’s going on in their world. What works today may not work next Friday.

Knowing what this means for each of your direct reports at any given point in time, is the baseline for understanding how far you can stretch them (without breaking them)!

In this episode, I explore why positive stress is essential for your people, and why it’s the key to unlocking exceptional performance. I explain why overloading people with work doesn’t actually stretch them – it just demotivates them. And I offer some ideas for using the Challenge / Coach / Confront framework to lift every individual to their peak potential.

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Episode #148 Stretching Your People (Without Breaking Them)

We’ve had a great question from one of our listeners about how to know when someone is at the point of peak performance and when they’ve been pushed too far, ending up overwhelmed and burnt out.

Everyone has different levels of mental capability, emotional capacity, resilience, drive, and ambition. To make things even harder this isn’t static. On any given day, depending on what’s going on in someone’s life, these things can vary. So what works today as a leader may not work next Friday. Knowing where each of your direct reports is, at any given point in time, is the baseline for understanding how far you can stretch them.

In this episode, I’m going to expand on some of the concepts we’ve spoken about previously to give you a guide for how to know when someone can be stretched a little further and when you risk burning them out.

  • We’ll start with some revision of the Yerkes Dodson law, the relationship between stress and performance

  • Then, we’ll try to get an understanding of why no one really likes being stretched at first, but eventually they come to love it

  • I’ll go on to talk about the things that are likely to stretch your people and the things that are just going to overwhelm them

  • I’ll finish with some tips for stretching your people to get the most out of them

The relationship between stress and performance 

We talk about stress like it’s a bad thing. Putting people under stress is something that many leaders try to avoid. Why? Well, if you put people under stress, then maybe they’ll feel bad and won’t like you anymore. And because of our natural conflict aversion, we avoid not being liked by our people.

We do everything we can to rationalise and give ourselves a reason why not stretching people is actually good. If we don’t put them under stress, they will be happier and we all know that happy workers are productive workers right? This is a massive fallacy. I did an episode on this, Episode #8: Are Happy Workers Productive Workers.

I’ll give you a quick summary before we move on.

Correlation is very different from causation. In this episode, I talked about the difference between these two things. For example, the relationship between altitude and temperature is a causal relationship. The higher up you go in terms of altitude, the colder the temperature gets. It’s a law of nature. It’s predictable. It’s consistent.

In contrast to this, let’s think about the relationship between alcoholism and smoking. If you’re an alcoholic, it’s much more likely that you’re also a smoker than if you weren’t an alcoholic. But no one would suggest that being an alcoholic causes you to smoke. That’s a correlation, not a causal relationship.

When we talk about happy workers being productive workers, we’re looking at a correlation that may or may not be true. It’s actually pretty easy as a leader to make your people happy and in doing so, you can even lift your engagement score. How cool is that? What if I were to give everyone Fridays off? What if I was to increase their pay by 50%? What if I was to be really flexible around how much time they spent internet shopping?

What if I didn’t demand anything from them and paid them really, really well? Are they going to be happy? Sure. At least in the short term. But your good people are going to tire of that very, very quickly. They won’t find it satisfying to live in a mediocre culture. Most people don’t, unless of course they are mediocre. By definition, your mediocre people will love it and they will never leave. Happy and productive? I think not!

The Yerkes Dodson law is our guide here. This is over a hundred years old, two behavioural psychologists put this together through some empirical research. They actually managed to map the relationship between stress and performance.

What they found was that stress is entirely positive. As stress increases, so does performance, up to a point, of course. Once you hit that point where stress becomes too much, then performance plateaus out or declines.

Image via Productivity Land

Sometimes if the stress is enough, performance falls off the edge of a cliff. So what we’re trying to do is get people to that point where the stress is sufficient to release their performance, but not so much that it actually causes them to fail and their performance to decline.

Let’s just think about a real life example of this, where you have either pressure or no pressure. Think of the pressure that comes with an immovable deadline. How much do you get done in the 24 to 48 hours before you go on vacation? You get heaps done if you’re anything like me. Ask yourself the question, “Would you get that much done without the need to finish those things before you go away?” It’s really, really unlikely. But you’ve got to work out where your sweet spot is.

Why we have a love-hate relationship with being stretched

People don’t necessarily like to be stretched. People are generally pretty happy to meander along. Even the very best of your people will only give you probably about 80% on any given day.

I know I was like that. We all like the certainty and achievability of the things we’re doing. It’s quite risky to go out on a limb and shoot for the harder stuff and most people won’t do it naturally. Something external has to demand more, and that’s either going to be an event, or a leader.

But just be a little bit careful here, you’ve got to pick your target. The very first thing you have to do is work out what someone’s ambition level is. When someone who works for you has no ambition, or they’re just there for the pay check, you have to treat them a little bit differently. Not everyone wants career advancement. That’s fine. Many people have other things in their life that drive them and they have no real interest in their careers. That’s okay as long as they’re meeting the minimum acceptable standard that you set. You still have to have this philosophy of ‘no tourists’ or the team culture will plummet.

My rule of thumb through anecdotal observation is that when you find someone who doesn’t want to progress or excel, they generally are people who have no ambition. Probably only 20% of them are likely to meet the minimum acceptable standard, if you’re setting that bar in the right place.

For these people, although they have a really good reason for not wanting to make work the centre of their life, they still perform really well when they are at work. And that’s great. That’s what you want. But the other 80% are either looking for a free ride, an easy life, or they’re just plain lazy. They’re looking to do less for more, and I’ve run into a bunch of these people during my career.

My assessment might be a little harsh here in terms of the percentages, but I don’t think I’m that far off. You’ve got to protect the minimal acceptable standard like it’s life or death, because when it comes to your culture, it probably is.

Too many leaders say, “Well, you’re not ambitious, so I’ll relax the standard for you”. Instead of relaxing the standard, what you should be doing is to let those people go and find a team with a leader who doesn’t want to drive a culture of high-performance. There are plenty of those around. There’s a place for everyone. I truly believe that. It’s just that it shouldn’t be in your team if you want your team to perform better.

For those who are self-confessed journey men and women, just watch the scoreboard carefully with them. Weak leaders lower the standard to meet the performance. Strong leaders lift the performance to meet the standard. What happens when you stretch your people and they succeed. It’s absolute dynamite. These are the ones who are there and have ambition.

My view is that all self-esteem comes from achieving difficult things. Just have a think about this. When was the last time that you felt unstoppable? Invincible? Absolutely bulletproof?

My guess is it was just after you managed to do something really difficult, something that scared you, something you thought was perhaps beyond your reach or something that made you feel fearful and anxious at the outset.

Once people get this feeling, it gives them confidence, and trend is your friend. If you can feel as though your ability to achieve difficult things is strong, then you won’t be quite so afraid to take them on. You get to recognise that feeling of fear and apprehension that comes with any difficult goal. And you welcome these feelings, because you know that they’re essential if you’re going to get to the other side and feel that joy of growing your self-esteem and confidence.

As a leader, your job is to give your people the opportunity to experience that feeling as often as they possibly can. So stretch them.

the things that are likely to stretch your people and the things that are just going to overwhelm them

How do we bring productive stress and not unproductive stress to the picture?

You’ve got to challenge your people to lift. We know that. But challenging them to lift doesn’t mean you swamp them in work. You’re challenging them to lift intellectually, to stretch their knowledge and problem solving capacity.

For example, giving one of your people a new and interesting project that adds value to the business and stretches them personally. Something that lets them make decisions that they’re not particularly comfortable with, but you support them to do so. Maybe challenging them to acquire new skills. This is really good because it gives a clear linkage between the effort that someone puts in and their career advancement, because they’re doing something new and something that takes them forward. That feeling of forward momentum is all important when you’re giving people a bit of a stretch. Putting people onto mission critical outcomes is a really good way to stretch them, because they feel the importance of the goal that they’re trying to achieve.

When you’ve got any sort of high value or urgent imperatives, like a crisis that needs to be resolved, or you need some troubleshooting in there. People that need to lift in these circumstances can get a huge amount of self-esteem from being successful.

As I said, stretching doesn’t mean piling on the work. That’s when people are most likely to be facing burnout. When it’s just a grind, a constant grind, it’s not fun. There’s no value in it. It’s just an oppressive workload and there’s no end in sight.

This is also where disparities come up with less productive workers in the team. You get the job because your boss knows you can do it. The only reward you’re getting for being an excellent performer is you’re getting the work of the non-performers to do. That’s no fun, no matter who you are. It’s also quite often the case, the leader who piles on an unsustainable workload onto the good people is a very poor leader.

It’s normally due to one or more of these symptoms:

  • When the leader is not focused on value and they’re working on all the wrong things

    When there’s no differentiation because what drives the most value, then everything looks the same, and it all comes in, in a flurry of activity. They’re not using the simplicity and focus mantra that great leaders use.

  • When the leaders above you aren’t pushing back on the leaders above them at the top of the organisation

    They are yes men and yes women. When they’re asked to do something, they’ll say, sure, boss, I’ll do it for you. They just keep piling the work onto you, irrationally, no additional resources, no ranking or prioritisation, just more work. It becomes a pattern.

  • When the leaders don’t share the load between team members, as we spoke about before.

    You get rewarded for doing your job, by getting to do other people’s jobs for them.

    Good people are only going to take that for so long so be aware of your people’s workload and capacity. Just because they keep doing stuff, doesn’t mean they’re happy about it. One day they might just burn out and decide to go somewhere else.

As I mentioned before, a key part of stretching people is to stretch them on the right things. Work out what those right things are and apply your people to them.

To do this properly you need to clear the decks. Empowerment is about giving people the best possible chance of success. With this they need some self determination and autonomy, and don’t let them get distracted with low value work.

When you stretch your people the right way, they’re extremely unlikely to be overworked in terms of the sheer volume, but there’ll be challenged in terms of their capability, intellect, judgement, ingenuity, and resourcefulness.

How to stretch your people without breaking them

Remember you’re trying to find the sweet spot – just above their current capability, but not too much. It’s got to feel hard, but it’s got to feel within reach. It should make them feel a little bit uneasy in their gut and they should even be just a little frightened of the task or at least anxious about their ability to be successful.

The way to find this out is through the challenge, coach, and confront cycle. This is the leadership dialogue. I’ve done a whole episode on this that you can find here: Episode #57: Challenge, Coach, and Confront. It’s a must listen to!

For most of your people, the work is in the first two phases, challenge and coach. This is where you get firsthand knowledge of their individual capabilities. You’re going to make an assessment of how far to push them.

It’s much easier too, if you have talent management processes to refer to. That can give you some data about individuals as a baseline to work with them. Challenging and coaching is an iterative process.

In the challenge phase, you work with your people to agree on the targets and objectives. You explain to them why the stretch is needed and you explain why it’s good for them. You paint a picture of why you believe they can do it, and why it’s important that they do.

From there, coaching is mainly in the regular formal one-on-one meetings that you have with them, but there’s a whole lot of informal interaction around that as well. In these coaching moments, you’ve got to read the play. How is this individual coping? Sometimes, the goals you set weren’t sufficiently challenging. Well okay, no need to move the goalposts, but just file it in the back of your mind for next time. They have more capability and resourcefulness than you thought they did.

Next time you can push them a little bit harder. Stretch them just a little bit more. Get them closer to that point of peak performance, where stress is optimised.

But sometimes, the goals are just too challenging and you may need to wretched back in real time. “Okay Marty, I think I may have pushed a little hard on this one. What I think we’ve learned in the last few weeks is X, Y, and Z. And we may need to back off and give ourselves more time on this one”.

Your objective is to set difficult goals and to have your people succeed, not set inappropriate goals and have them fail. You’re trying to build confidence, and that feeling comes from winning. You’re trying to build self-esteem and courage, and that can’t be done from a position of indifference or apathy.

Think of this as an iterative loop. Challenge, coach challenge, coach, coach challenge, keep it going over and over again, while you feel for that perfect spot.

You’re both searching for that spot where the magic happens.

To find it, you need to be empathetic and connected. If you’re not, the whole process is going to just feel a little brutal. The best thing is though, if you do this really well, confronting rarely needs to happen.

You get the right people to the limits of their capability and you watch them succeed. But even the best need a rest.

Think of your people like professional athletes. They need to train really hard, but the rest days are just as important, otherwise they’ll break. The pressure needs to be intense, but not sustained over too long a time period.Once someone’s done something special, give them a breather. They’ll tell you when they’re ready to go back in the arena.

Pulling it all together, people are going to resist being stretched at first, but don’t let that deter you. Initially, your ambition for them, may be greater than their ambition for themselves. People will self-select along the way if they’re not up for it.

Your job, is to give them the opportunity. To be aware of what it takes for each individual to hit their sweet spot. To make the micro adjustments as you go, but also to keep the pressure on, to help them to be their best. Once your people get the hang of this, they’ll start pushing themselves harder. They want that feeling of winning. Weak leaders, let’s face it, they just never give their people that opportunity.


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