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Why operating at 85% is optimal for performance

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29th Sep 2015
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Alan Watkins writes on the science of coherent leadership which encompasses a wide range of areas brought together to help individuals in business increase their developmental levels and be more personally effective. Alan is an honorary senior lecturer in neuroscience and psychological medicine at Imperial College, London and originally qualified as a physician. Alan worked with the Great Britain rowing squad prior to the London Olympics and provides continued guidance to the coaches in advance of Rio 2016. He is the founder and CEO of Complete Coherence.

We all know that having a deadline focuses the mind on getting the job done. A little bit of pressure is certainly a good thing.

However, the relationship between pressure and performance is not strictly linear; there is a tipping point at which pressure severely impairs performance.

In fact, if pressure continues to increase beyond that tipping point, our performance does not just plateau, it plummets. It may not be immediately obvious to you that your performance is suffering, but soon enough you’ll start to panic that you aren’t coping with the pressure and panic will further impair your performance.

The relationship between pressure and performance is not strictly linear

What the relationship between pressure and performance highlights is that a bit of pressure is not a bad thing.

You could even say: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. After all, that’s how vaccinations help our immune system fight disease – they apply a bit of pressure on our biological system and make us more resilient in the process.

This isn’t just applicable to humans. It was actually scientifically demonstrated in mice and also applies to any kind of complex system – an entire organisation for example.

With mice, researchers applied pressure in the form of heating up the mouse’s wire cage, and saw that this improved their performance as they navigated their way out of the cage.  However too much pressure (heat) made the mice incapable of performing[1].  

Understanding this relationship between pressure and performance is critical to ensuring high quality performance is maintained, not only in yourself but in others too. One of the responsibilities of leadership is to ensure pressure on an individual, or within a system, is at an appropriate amount. 

The tricky thing is recognising when that pressure on the individual, team or organisation has become too great and performance is at risk. Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules on spotting the tipping point. It is very specific to the individual or situation. It is not about an absolute number of tasks you have to complete, it is about your capability to cope with those tasks.

The tricky thing is recognising when that pressure on the individual, team or organisation has become too great and performance is at risk.

The real secret is to be much more mindful of the amount of pressure in a system. It is important to realize that no one can perform at 100% capacity 100% of the time, and they certainly can’t learn, develop, or improve whilst they are attempting to do so. Most of the time it’s better to perform at 85% of your maximum, leaving some room for a crisis or an important deadline.

It’s a lesson that most athletes have already learnt. As they prepare for a big race they do not fully exert themselves the day before the competition. The same is true for a mental feat - allow yourselves some space to operate at 100% when you really need to.

Being mindful of your own performance and how pressure is affecting you will be critical to building your own resilience and ensuring you’re always at the peak of your performance.  

[1] Yerkes RM, Dodson JD. (1908) The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. J.Comp.Neurol.Psychol.18:459–482.

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