One of the laws of stress

I think about stress a lot.

I learned yesterday about an interesting study conducted in 1908 related to the application of stress and the affect on productivity, a study that is still impacting how organizations view worker productivity today.

Robert M. Yerkes and John Dodson conducted an experiment with a box. The box had set of smaller boxes inside. One of the smaller boxes was black, one was white. They would put a mouse in the box. If the mouse walks into the black box, it gets a shock.

Yerkes and Dodson wanted to know if varying the intensity of the shock affected how quickly the mice learned that the white box was the safe option.

Then they wanted to know if the same rules applied when the boxes were obscured with a screen, making it harder to tell them apart.

They found some interesting results.

For the simple task–black box or white box–the mice learned faster as the shocks got higher.

For the harder task–when the screen made it harder to distinguish the boxes boxes–the mice learned faster when the shocks were lower, but performed worse as the shocks got higher.

This led to this general principle: environmental stresses help performance, but only up to a point. This relationship became known as the Yerkes-Dodson law.

The Yerkes-Dodson law, via Wikipedia

Human biochemistry generally aligns with these findings.The body responds to both internal and external stressors with the release of stress hormones which negatively impact memory, attention, and problem solving.

Consider stresses that can affect performance. The last year has been an onslaught of external factors here in the US. The pandemic and its economic fallout. Incidence of police brutality and the subsequent racial unrest that gripped the country. An insurrection on the US Capitol.

Everyone is bearing witness to these incredible and stressful events, and experiencing the emotional impact of all of the factors above.

In the workplace, consider individuation of those factors; the pandemic has affected different people differently across broad factors like racial lines, economic lines. Personal and vicarious connections to racial and civic unrest weigh heavy on many. The frustrations of a virtual school society for small children, and on and on.

In an unfortunate turn, the Yerkes-Dodson law could easily be weaponized. It’s a simple interpretation: break down each given job in your organization into the simplest tasks possible, apply stress to the workforce, reap the benefits of productivity. My immediate consideration is logistics. Whether it’s Amazon fulfillment or UPS, the tasks at hand are monitored and optimized to be as simple as possible while ramping up quotas, targets, or other stressors.

But in the tech sector, so many job roles are living in an in-between space between the expectations of high performance and the perks and policies that are specifically targeted to reduce stressors.

As a manager, learning about the Yerkes-Dodson law shaped how I’d like to manage a team. Many of our design challenges are complex and under stress, these are exceptionally challenging. The pressures of the pandemic are putting people in to a high-stress state, even before they begin. If this most recent performance review season has seemed extra tough, then that’s why–complicated, cerebral tasks like the self reflection and long-term thinking associated with career development can seem especially arduous for someone under today’s conditions. As a result, I’ll be working with my team to consider way to break down the tasks, and peel back the stressors, as best we can.

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