How Stress and Play Create Peak Performance

Is it up to managers to create optimal conditions for peak performance? I don’t think they are responsible for everything, of course. In my last post about the importance of play (The Road to Peak Performance is Paved with Play), I suggested managers ask open-ended questions to encourage playfulness and creativity.

Can you do that and still focus on reaching performance goals? I think you can.

Managers greatly influence the emotional tone of the workplace. They help create working conditions that are “flow“-friendly, that is, work spaces that encourage focused concentration. Managers make sure their teams are able to work in both psychologically and physically healthy spaces.

What is a psychologically healthy work space? And, how does a manager provide that? Managers are experts in their field and in charge of people and performance. But they aren’t psychologists.

In the work I do with managers inside organizations, everyone  pays attention to the issues of emotional and physical health when the stress gets so bad it starts to eat people up. It’s often only after the fact, when someone becomes burned out.

All organizations that don’t have a work philosophy that takes into account human capabilities, frailties and limits, is doomed to weak performance. It’s a question of business practicality. When organizations encourage their managers to “rev up the troops” with expectations of super-human efforts, they end up paying excessive costs.

Stress is a palpable force in the workplace and not all of it is bad. Business people obtain as much satisfaction from professional accomplishment as athletes do from reaching a personal best. It’s fun to give your best, especially when it leads to success.

Good stress, called eustress, strengthens our mental and physical abilities and doesn’t wear us down, but even eustress requires reasonable care and mental conditioning.

We are all responsible for personal mastery of our responsibilities. However, many people are prone to over-extension when asked to perform at high levels. We ignore the stress in favor of focus on the completion of goals. And here’s where a manager can help.

When managers point out the symptoms of stress and the toll it takes on one’s well being and performance, they are taking the first step for stress-inoculation. When they can encourage hard work with a spirit of play and humor, it’s even more effective.

Managers can give their people the message that stress is a part of peak performance, but over-extension and burn out is not. Recognizing the physical manifestation of stress is often the first step in reducing or controlling a stress reaction. Laughter and playfulness are the second step.

Is it possible to encourage playfulness and peak performance at the same time? I believe it is possible, but not without a good sense of humor. Not every manager has that. What do you think?

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