The Right Kind of Pressure
By Henry Cloud, Ph.D.
In a short amount of time, I heard these two comments from two different high performers. The first one said, “I am totally overwhelmed….I don’t see any way to make this work.” He was speaking of the complexity of the business that he was leading, and the obstacles that he was facing. The second one said something almost the exact opposite… “I am so on autopilot that I feel almost asleep. It seems like I keep doing the same old thing and it is not grabbing me anymore.” While these two comments seem to be pretty much the opposite problem, they are related in a very important way in terms of coaching for high performance.
Research tells us that both of these people were in low performing regions of their brains because a very important quotient had been violated: the “challenge-skills” quotient. I am not sure that “challenge-skills” quotient is a real term in any literature, but it does represent the findings of a lot of research about peak performance. Basically, the idea is this: people do best when they have the right balance between a challenge being a) high enough to engage all of who they are, and b) the challenge being appropriate for their level of skills so as to not completely overwhelm them. When that happens, they experience something one researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has called “flow.” It is the highest state of optimal performance experience, where someone is truly engaged and at their best.
So, as a coach, how do you help someone get to their optimal performance? One way is to assess, monitor and keep adjusting the “challenge-skills” quotient. In the first scenario above, my coach had violated the quotient in that the challenge he had taken on was too far past his skills level. He had signed up for some complexities that were past the level of development that he had at that juncture in time, and in the overwhelmed state that he found himself, his performance got worse. He was going backwards.
As a coach, I had to begin to help him determine what he had “bitten off that was more than he could chew,” as your grandfather might have said. Where specifically had he taken on tasks, strategies, initiatives and challenges that were just too big of a leap for his current level? What were the steps that we needed to take to dial that in, find some help in the areas where he was weak, and appropriately match what he was doing to his skill level? And just as importantly, what were the character and personality issues that made him do that in the first place? Was he too grandiose? Too impulsive? Lacking in self-awareness or not getting enough feedback from others? Too high or expectations from his family or others? Too narcissistic? As Romans 12:3 says, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” That verse leads us to a lot of very good coaching conversations.
With the second person, the problem was the opposite. He was not getting to optimal performance, or growth, or even satisfaction, because he was not being challenged enough to match his skills level. We needed to find the right ways and directions to up the “heat” of the challenge level in his work and life. He needed to be stretched and a little more anxious. In short, he needed to be more awake and less asleep, and it was going to take a curvier road with some impending cliffs to keep him from dozing off at the wheel. He was way over-competent for what he was trying to do, and lacking any attempts to do things that would force him to grow in skill levels.
Plus, besides finding the new initiatives to jump into, we also had to do some of the character work as well. Why was he not stretching himself? Fear of failure? Laziness? Too comfortable and not wanting to be threatened with getting out of that comfort zone? Or, an inaccurate self-image? (Remember what the verse above said in addition to not thinking too highly of oneself….it also says to have “sober judgment” in accordance with the faith that God has given to someone. Many times a person is not owning their gifts at their true level of giftedness and as a result, not stepping into optimal performance. Remember the lesson of the parable of the talents…..there was one person who buried his talent in the ground to avoid the risk of criticism and failure.) Had no one ever told this person how gifted he was? Or challenged him to get moving? Was he too vulnerable to narcissistic injury?
The good news is that both of them could get to optimal performance with a little coaching. But it took some adjustment of the “challenge-skills” quotient, or as the title of this article says, “the right amount of pressure.” In your coaching, make sure that you are asking those questions along the way. Are your clients appropriately challenged for their skill level? Are they being pushed to grow in their skills? Are you getting them to place themselves in situations where their relational, or personal capacities are being pushed to the right limit? Are their work capacities being pushed to the real limits of their gifts and abilities, plus a little more? In this area, like many others, your role is to comfort and upset, and to upset the comfortable.
It may be as simple as putting them in a growth group and getting them to take the risk of being vulnerable to a circle of people, or as complicated as motivating a good athlete to try to step it up to train for the Olympics. From simple, to very complex, we all need the “right amount of pressure” to keep growing, thriving, and performing well.
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