To my team, I’m the queen of the eighth-inning surprise curveball. Let me explain. I’ve leveraged the power of well-timed disruption to help my people grow, and produce better work. Intentional stress is the type that you create, control, and distribute. No, it isn’t some Machiavellian mind game that pushes people to their breaking point. And it isn’t about being a jerk, either. It’s more the opposite—intentional stress is about setting people up for success.
To understand how intentional stress fosters strength and resilience, you need to know the difference between eustress and distress. Eustress, or beneficial stress, occurs when you step outside your comfort zone for a purpose: taking on a challenging new project or performing in front of an audience. Unlike distress, which leaves you feeling drained and miserable, eustress creates feelings of satisfaction, excitement, and fulfillment, which are all critical to overall well-being. What’s more, when a stressor is viewed as a challenge rather than a hindrance, it enhances your ability to generate new ideas.
As a leader, you can apply just the right stress to your team so they feel capable and confident, having risen to a challenge.
BUILD MUSCLE AGAINST STRESS
Sometimes, I’ll call someone on my team unexpectedly into a cross-functional meeting and ask them to present or lead the meeting. Alternately, I’ll bring in a department head to sit in on the presentation without announcing it. The key to not being the jerk here is that I already know my employee can deliver; I’m not out to embarrass anybody. I’ll do this stress test only after we’ve been through the material and I know they know their stuff.
Of course, I’ve seen people get nervous. If someone is suddenly and unexpectedly presenting to a department head, their nerves will show up. But I want my team to build that muscle because the further they get in their careers, the more they’re going to be put on the spot.
I also ask my junior team members to communicate personally with directors and vice presidents. I don’t have to be their mouthpiece, and I don’t want to. What I want is a team of people who are comfortable with their own voices. I’ll help them get ready; I’m their coach during practices. But I’m not going to play for them, so I throw them into a scrimmage.
PRACTICE WORST CASES IN A SAFE ENVIRONMENT
When my team is preparing for a big presentation, we frequently practice our talk tracks, or what course our speeches will take. The problem with that is that it can start to feel robotic. So a day or so before, I’ll change up the content or the order of the slides. This gives presenters a little jolt, forcing them to rearrange their thoughts quickly.
This needs to happen near the end of our prep time, but not too near the end. It’s why I’m the queen of the eighth-inning curveball; if I threw this surprise out in the ninth, it would wreak havoc and shatter nerves. If I threw it in the seventh, the entire team would slip back into our comfort zones.
Even though my team knows something’s coming (including roughly when), they don’t know what this something will be. All they know is that they need to be ready to handle something tricky. And that’s the way I want them to approach everything.
After all, since this is life, things can sometimes blow up. No matter how much you practice, things can always go to hell, but you can respond with poise and get your presentation back on track a lot faster if you’ve rehearsed frightening scenarios in a safe environment.
TAILOR YOUR STRESS TESTING
In the startup world, we talk about stress testing ideas. When applying this concept to your team, keep in mind ideas don’t have feelings, but people do. You have to know your team’s personalities in order to apply the right amount and kind of stress.
You’ll always have that person who’s eager to take on more. However, this doesn’t mean you should pile work on them. Most likely, they are already a pro at giving themselves intentional stress. If they’re signed up for too much, they won’t want to let that show, so be attentive and know when to give them a break.
The kind of person who needs a little stress nudge is that employee who wants everything mapped and doesn’t like change. They don’t like to improvise and panic when tasks or deadlines shift. However, this employee is probably an individual who can handle more than they think. Assign tasks where they have to figure some things out. A sprinkle of ambiguity will make them more comfortable with uncertainty and allow them to prove their own competence to themself.
Applying intentional stress isn’t about secretly manipulating your team. I’m always upfront about what I’m doing and why. Some team members love it more than others. But rising to challenges is powerful. The intentional stress my team encounters is relatively small, but the experiences add up. Learning to handle curveballs—and occasionally hitting them out of the park—forces us to confront our development and growth potential, in the workplace and our everyday lives.
Brit Booth is a marketing expert with extensive experience in leading creative teams, brand building and thought leadership. She has held leadership positions in marketing departments across a variety of companies, most recently Perfect Day and Chewse, which was recently acquired by Foodee.