Balance Safety with Challenge for Success

While riding the exercise bike at the gym, the ticker tape news said that a majority of employees surveyed believe they are working faster than ever before but getting less done. I didn’t catch the source of the survey, but I bet most of you are asking, “Is that news?”

THE PROBLEM resides in the results of stress on our brain activity. When looking to create an ideal workplace (even at home), you have to take into consideration three factors relating to stress:

1. Give it a break

2. Balance challenge with optimism

3. Make mistakes important

THE FACTS: First, the brain is designed to handle only spurts of adrenalin. Then, like our muscles, it needs recovery time. If stress is continual, it actually decreases the brain’s ability to produce creative thoughts, see options and make good decisions. In short, working harder and faster can make us stupid. If you have a lot of work to do, think of your work as a roller coaster, intense and short, needing a short walk and a laugh with a friend in between rides.

Second, it is good to experience the uncertainty of success to a certain degree. You need to have realistic expectations that success is possible coupled with a tinge of doubt, uncertain you can pull it off. A dab of doubt actually stimulates your motivation.

There was a study performed a number of years ago where a monkey had to pull a lever to get a reward. They found that activity in the monkeys’ brains increased when they approached the lever, not when the reward appeared. When the monkeys felt fairly confident that the reward would appear, there was a rise in the neurotransmitters that increase mental efficiency. The stimulus was the anticipation of reward, not the reward itself.

Then there was a follow-up study where the monkeys got the reward 50% of the time, introducing the concept of “maybe this will work, maybe it won’t.” The dopamine levels skyrocketed. However, if the reward only happened 25% of the time, causing too much doubt, or 75% of the time, nearly eliminating the challenge, the levels of dopamine decreased. For the monkeys, 50% of success and failure kept them excited and alert.

BRAIN TIP 1. FIND YOUR RANGE OF STIMULATING CHALLENGE. In the real world, it’s hard to know where the middle of the scale is – 50% may not be the right point. Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, studied insurance people who do cold calling. Many of the mediocre agents were rejected 99% of the time, but the one that gets ‘no’ said to him 98% of the time is the most accomplished person in that field. His “maybe” range is just enough to keep him optimistic. But then you have people’s personalities that can skew the scale one way or another. Some people hate risk, so they may need to see success occur more often. You have to discover your own range of “stimulating challenge.”

BRAIN TIP 2. CREATE A BENEVOLENT SETTING. You must also consider the context that makes this balance of hope and doubt work. Dr. Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t’ Get Ulcers, says that organizations (and families) need to create what is called a “benevolent setting,” where failures are acceptable as part of the process. People are actively exploring new possibilities where they are not certain things are going to work out but they are not feeling hopeless, ever. Resources are available and there is always a good possibility of success. It’s going to take some effort though, and it is not guaranteed, but there is a pretty good chance you will succeed in the long run.

However, lack of certainty in a malevolent setting (one engulfed in fear or unreasonable expectations) causes people to lose hope. The “maybe I will succeed” disappears. Contrast this uncertainty in a benevolent setting and you have people feeling: “this roller coaster ride is going to be scary but I know they won’t let me fall off and die.”

In a malevolent setting, the unpredictability is paralyzing. In a benevolent setting, the unpredictability is sheer stimulation and excitement.

In a benevolent work setting, leaders set challenges for people that have some degree of possible failure, but everything is available to create success. And as they are risking, exploring, and learning, employees do this without fear of being criticized or punitively blamed for mistakes. In this setting, the unpredictability stimulates good work. If you work for yourself, then you, too, must allow for some failure in order to ultimately succeed.

In essence then a work environment has to allow for some vulnerability, which includes both risk and failure. In other words, leaders can’t be sending the message for people to do it right all the time. If you did it right all the time, you would not be challenging yourself and would lose motivation. If you never do it right, you lose hope.

THE BOTTOM LINE: I think we all need to find the rewarding balance of challenge and risk tolerance in our lives. And we need to have people around us that support us no matter what we do. Brilliance arises when we feel safe enough to accept the challenge.

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