Is there such a thing as good stress?

Is there such a thing as good stress?

As an executive coach I have seen more than my share of stressed-out people – leaders charged with implementing massive change, managers struggling to turn around dysfunctional teams, individuals doing their best to achieve difficult goals with far less resources than necessary, and everyone trying to find the time to focus on the things they care most about without much success.

We know all too well the negative effective of stress – increased cortisol, interrupted sleep, greater susceptibility to illness, reduced mental clarity, etc. But recently a family discussion led me to consider whether there are any positive aspects of stress.

There is evidence in nature that stress can lead to positive results. When carbon is put under intense heat and pressure, we get diamonds. When an oyster is irritated by a grain of sand, we get pearls. So can the same be true for us? Is there a certain type or level of stress that can produce positive results?

I believe the answer is “yes.” For many people, change and challenge creates stress. Yet they also are two critical factors in growth – both personal and professional. So what are some ways that you can foster positive stress in the workplace?

  • Set stretch objectives – By developing a goal or objective that feels slightly out of reach, we can encourage extra effort and creativity to achieve it.
  • Push beyond the comfort zone – Incent your team members to try a new approach, develop a new skill, or take on a new challenge. Providing motivation for stepping out of the boundaries of what is known and “safe” offers an opportunity for growth.
  • Develop diversity – Having multi-faceted opinions, backgrounds, perspectives, and styles on a team has inherent challenges. Yet, fostering diversity and the respect for these differences delivers stronger results and long-term success.
  • Offer challenging assignments – Breaking away from the norm and giving team members a chance to take on some of the more challenging issues your organization faces pays huge dividends. Employees grow and the organization reaps the benefits of new thinking and ideas.

Even if you have an environment of unhealthy stress today, it is possible to turn it around to a more positive tone. Take steps to identify and acknowledge the causes of stress (i.e., organizational change, poor team dynamics, conflicting priorities, lack of communication); seek input and feedback from team members; and put a plan of action in place to address the negative elements of stress and promote more positive and productive challenge within your organization.

What other approaches can we employ to promote change, challenge, and positive stress?
Please leave a comment.

If you enjoyed this post, you can read more like it in our book, The Power of Thoughtful Leadership: 101 Minutes To Being the Leader You Want To Be, available on Amazon.

For more ideas on how you can foster the positive aspects of stress, contact Robyn at rmcleod@chatsworthconsulting.com.

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What People Are Saying

Kevin Dunn   |   26 June 2014

Thanks for bringing this up this topic. So many people say “I want to be stress free” to which the natural answer is “So you want to be dead?”

The reality is that stress is a two sided coin – eustress and distress. As a leader (or as an individual) creating eustress allows you to set the challenging goals, motivate yourself and others, and is the precursor to the sense of accomplishment when you overcome an obstacle or meet a challenge.

It is only when you allow eustress to flip over and become distress that the benefits are lost. Leaders have to know their teams – both individually and collectively – and have a clear understanding of the point when the motivations of a challenge become the despair of an unreachable goal.

This point is going to be different for every individual. As a leader it is the incumbent on you to manage that stress level – insert humor, have a funny hat day, take the team to the park and play on the swings, have an in depth discussion around what resources are needed to make the goal achievable – to keep realizing the benefits of eustress and hold the distress at bay. (The related posts to this article are great resources around holding the balance between the two types of stress.)

Appreciate your great discussions on these important topics.

Robyn McLeod   |   30 June 2014

Kevin, thank you so much for your explanation of eustress and distress. Your suggestions on how to lead a team toward eustress and keep distress at bay are terrific.
Thanks again for sharing!