Why a little stress and anxiety pays dividends

A reasonable level of workplace pressure can lift performance

People defined as being more neurotic than average tend to be more critical of themselves and feel greater tension than others. They are prone to negative emotions and become anxious, stressed and frustrated more easily. This can lead to a lower level of self-respect.

Several studies of individual performance in the workplace have connected higher levels of neuroticism to lower levels of performance. But it would be a mistake to interpret this to mean that a stress-free workplace encourages high performance, says Amirali Minbashian, a senior lecturer in the school of management at UNSW Business School.

According to Minbashian, this particular measure of neuroticism can be defined as "trait neuroticism". In other words, it is a measure of how likely an individual is to feel negative emotions at any time. It is one of many general measures of personality.

"The measure is to do with structural differences between people, such as the way an individual's brain processes information," Minbashian says.

"Because of these structural differences, some people tend to experience higher anxiety than others. The implication has been that if you're going to select people for a work environment, there is a relationship that suggests the lower the person is on the neuroticism scale, the better they will perform. That is the case with trait neuroticism."

'Up to a moderate level, a state of neuroticism can be a positive. It can motivate you'


Situational response

We need to separate trait neuroticism from "state neuroticism", Minbashian says. State neuroticism is to do with emotions that are caused by, and experienced within, the heat of the moment.

For example, if a large snake slithers into your office you will likely feel more neurotic than usual, and this is good. Without a level of stress – if you really do feel completely calm and experience no change in your anxiety levels – you're unlikely to get up and run away, or to do something else to protect yourself from harm.

But, at the same time, if you find yourself overwhelmed by fear or paralysed by stress you may become dysfunctional and, once again, be unable to get yourself out of harm's way.

So, too little anxiety is a negative, as is too much. Somewhere in the middle is best, and this same performance measure can be held up against those completing tasks within a workplace.

"Up to a moderate level, a state of neuroticism can be a positive. It can motivate you," Minbashian says.

"In this study we tested that idea by measuring the neuroticism level of mid-tier managers just before they undertook a cognitive task, then measuring their performance of that task."

Motivation to perform

Minbashian's study, In the Heat of the Moment: On the Effect of State Neuroticism on Task Performance, is co-authored by Nadin Beckmann, Jens F. Beckmann and Damian P. Birney and sheds light on the intimate relationship between performance and neuroticism.

"We found that up to a moderate level, the more state neuroticism that the subjects experienced, the better they performed," Minbashian says.

"If somebody showed no state neuroticism then they scored lower. With a higher level of state neuroticism they scored higher, but only up to a moderate level of neuroticism.

"We're recognising that stress is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the levels are not too high. Feeling a little stress can be better than not feeling any. One example in the workplace could be around deadlines. They cause stress and motivate you to perform well."

Other causes of moderate stress could include the potential to be judged (such as when making a presentation), the prospect of losing face (if a deal you're expected to bring in heads south), or an increase in pressure, such as presenting to the board instead of your team.

Minbashian's research showed people performed best somewhere between the levels of 20 and 30 – on a scale of zero to 100, where zero is no stress and 100 is maximum stress.

"What we found is that even though businesses might know they should employ the people who are the calmest, having a little bit of neuroticism in the form of stress or anxiety is actually going to be better for performance than trying to ensure staff are always calm," he says.

 Emotional profiling

Performance psychologist and director of The Business Olympian, Gavin Freeman, is not surprised by these findings. Having worked with countless elite sportspeople before moving his focus to the business world, he has utilised this type of knowledge to improve  individual performance.

There is a theory in psychology, Freeman says, called the "Inverted-U theory", which is used in identifying the zone of optimal function for an individual.

"There are two elements to this theory," he says. "The individual 'trait' zone of optimal functioning says that some people work better in different zones. But then there is a state based Inverted-U which says the task at hand will determine the level of performance of an individual, taking specific emotions into consideration."

So a person attempting to break a record for the most push-ups in 60 seconds, Freeman explains, will require a higher level of arousal or activation than if the same person was playing putt-putt golf. And speaking of golf, a professional golfer will likely require different levels of activation when teeing off, compared with when they are chipping, hitting out of the sand or putting.

To achieve performance improvement, an individual must be analysed across multiple variables.

"For a particular swimmer we had 10 variables – scared, excited, jittery, anxious, happy, calm, smooth, loose, assertive and relaxed," Freeman says.

"We worked out what his zone of optimal function was for each one of those variables. For instance, he needed to be four out of 10 scared, five out of 10 calm, six out of 10 relaxed, nine out of 10 loose and assertive, but only three out of 10 jittery and happy. So if he was too happy, he would not swim well. But he needed to be a little bit happy."

According to Freeman, the goal is to help the individual become self-aware so they are able to understand how they are feeling when they need to perform.

"It is not about their manager determining for them that they need to be more happy or nervous etc," he says. "And while it works beautifully on the sporting field, in the business world the performance requirements can be a lot more complicated and drawn-out."

We’re recognising that stress is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the levels are not too high


Sense of consequence

As mentioned, positive levels of stress can be created in the workplace by deadlines and other pressures. But Minbashian says these states of stress and anxiety that can possibly lead to higher performance are most likely to be experienced when a person is doing something important or consequential that they are not completely confident about.

So a heart surgeon who has conducted a specific operation hundreds of times may be extremely relaxed because they are doing something of enormous consequence, but are completely confident of the outcome.

But when a person is making their first presentation in a new job, they will likely be feeling anxious. For some this anxiety is good, depending on the levels. For others it can be crippling. But after their 50th presentation, most will feel no nerves at all.

Then suddenly, the CEO of the company walks into the room, and everything changes again.


You are free to republish this article both online and in print. We ask that you follow some simple guidelines.

Please do not edit the piece, ensure that you attribute the author, their institute, and mention that the article was originally published on Business Think.

By copying the HTML below, you will be adhering to all our guidelines.

Press Ctrl-C to copy