“Working for him is stressful.”
“Her leadership stresses me out.
You have likely heard those statements before, and they are almost always uttered in disdain about a leader who is putting too much pressure on people, setting unrealistic goals, or holding people to expectations that are deemed to be too high.
But great leaders put stress on the people they lead… the good kind of stress.
Let me explain. I first read about some stress being good for the mind in Spark, by John Ratey. The book is about the importance of exercise and how it impacts the brain by enabling better thinking, fighting anxiety, and building tolerance for stress. Just as some controlled amounts of stress on your muscles while working out builds muscle, stress on your mind builds your capacity to handle more stress.
There is actually a name for good stress; it is called eustress while the bad stress is aptly called distress. Eustress is known as beneficial stress. Maybe you felt the good stress before a big football or basketball game in high school, and it raised your focus and intensity. Or maybe you faced a looming deadline on a project and the stress caused you to pull together your best work. Or maybe the stress of a goal caused the team to rally around the goal and give great thinking and creativity to the goal.
Bottom-line: stress can be good. Wise leaders leverage good stress for the sake of those they lead and the mission they are leading. But how can you tell the difference between good stress and bad stress? Here are three differences between good stress and bad stress:
1. Good stress develops; bad stress demoralizes.
Wise leaders use good stress to develop those they lead, to nudge them to try new things and to learn at a faster rate than before. If we don’t take on more than we can handle, we won’t grow. Being slightly overwhelmed forces someone to learn and adjust. Bad stress, on the other hand, demoralizes. Just as attempting to bench press twice as much weight as previously bench-pressed causes one to leave the gym defeated, too much stress leads to surrender and does not create a hunger for growth and learning.
2. Good stress creates focus; bad stress creates chaos.
Wise leaders use good stress to focus the team on a shared goal. The stress of the goal brings attention and intensity to an important task. Without the good stress, people can live for months just passing the time and not accomplishing much of anything. Too much stress, though, has the opposite affect. People run around chaotically, jumping from idea to idea, but not accomplishing much—other than looking busy.
3. Good stress pushes great thinking; bad stress fosters paralysis.
Richard Koch, in his book The 80/20 Principle, encourages leaders to set aggressive deadlines for those they lead because the aggressive deadline forces the most important work to get done and the unimportant to be discarded. Some people even intentionally procrastinate because they feel they do their best work with a little stress. (There is a smarter way to do this; just give yourself an artificial deadline.) But too much stress, bad stress, causes people to stare at their screens or at one another in meetings unable to make a substantial decision.
Wise leaders bring the good stress to those they lead, not the bad stress. Life already provides plenty of that.