All Articles Leadership Management Is stress ruining your leadership-development efforts?

Is stress ruining your leadership-development efforts?

3 min read


Jennifer V. Miller combines her degree in psychology with her experience as a leadership development consultant to help leaders leverage their influence in an ethical way. Visit her blog, The People Equation, for tips on becoming workplace savvy.

Does your organization have a process for leadership development? If so, then you’ve probably heard about or experienced what I call the “pressure cooker” experience: Toss a bunch of smart, driven people into a time-pressured scenario, ask them to perform a task and see how they handle it. It’s the corporate version of reality television’s “Celebrity Apprentice,” minus The Donald’s bad comb-over.

Many executives favor this format, reasoning that promotable people need to be able to handle high-pressure situations. This is true — but what’s the right mix of pressure and learning? I once heard an executive stand before a group of high-potentials and declare, “What we see during your presentation has the power to make or break your career. If you’re not able to deliver, don’t bother coming back tomorrow.”

The company’s culture had elevated the Executive Presentation to such dramatic heights that it was routine for people to stay up 48 hours straight preparing for the presentation. Stories of people vomiting and breaking into hives prior to the presentation were commonplace.

Here’s the problem with that over-the-top approach.

There’s very little development going on. The word “develop” means to aid in the growth of or to strengthen. If, in fact, the aim of leadership development is to aid in the growth of one’s leadership capabilities, then heaping on excessive stress is counterproductive.

This executive thought he was motivating potential senior leaders to higher performances, but what he really did with that extreme proclamation was waste his development dollars. Here are three reasons.

It sends an ugly signal about organizational culture. There’s something sadistic about corporate leadership that intentionally applies pressure to the point of making its employees ill. These aspiring leaders want to do well. They don’t need ultimatums about their career to motivate them.

The focus is misplaced. When the message is your job is on the line, people focus on dazzling executives during the presentation, not on the foundational leadership skills needed in group projects like research, critical thinking and collaboration.

They won’t learn much. Excessive stress leads to production of the stress hormone, cortisol. The area of the brain that’s highly sensitive to cortisol is the hippocampus, which is the center for spatial awareness and memory formation. Simply put: too much stress equals no learning.

So is a group presentation to executives out the window? Not at all. With just a few adjustments, this tried-and-true format can be a positive developmental tool. How? By creating good stress, which psychologists call eustress. Eustress is a positive form of stress that occurs when people feel invigorated and excited about an impending event.

An executive can create positive stress by a simple shift in language. He or she can reframe the group project/presentation as an exciting challenge to which a gifted team can rise, rather than a high-stakes competition in which the losers forfeit their career aspirations. In this way, the investment in leadership development is maximized, not squandered.

High-stakes project work makes for great reality TV, but it has no place in the learning environment.

Image credit: kemalbas, via iStockphoto