Briefings Magazine

Creating Work Climates That Work

Pressuring people to make them perform better backfires.

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By: Daniel Goleman

Goleman, author of the international best-seller Emotional Intelligence, has a new book coming out, Optimal: The Emotionally Intelligent Organization

I vividly—and not happily—recall a boss I had some years ago. The vivid part: he threatened to fire me if I didn’t improve my performance. The problem: that threat made it harder for me to do my best work. I would fixate on the threat instead of on my efforts. His blunt-force motivation in effect de-motivated me.

Yet that kind of threat is all too common these days. When companies everywhere—and their leaders—feel heat to continually improve their results, that often gets translated in leader-to-follower terms as increased pressure, heightened stress, and even threats.

But scientists who study attention and performance find that stress level is inversely proportional to performance quality. Cognitive science has known this to be true for decades, as I explain in my new book Optimal: The Emotionally Intelligent Organization.

The brain’s “salience network” determines what matters to us most in each moment, and moves our attention there. Being threatened captures our attention to the exclusion of anything else. In leadership terms, this means that pressuring people to make them perform better simply backfires.

Research from Korn Ferry that looked at what workers saw as top leadership styles underlines this. So-called “pacesetter” leaders created one of the worst climates—and some of the poorest results. Such leaders had often been outstanding individual contributors, which was typically why they had been promoted to a leadership position.

They themselves were driven by extremely high internal standards for performance—staying at work hours later than others, for instance, to do a perfect job.

But as leaders, they turned that same perfectionistic lens outward, seeing only the ways in which workers were falling short, and ignoring the ways they were performing well. These leaders gave failing grades, but never acknowledged success. Small wonder they created a negative climate.

The research showed that the very best climate was created by leaders who could articulate a shared vision or purpose, expressing it genuinely. That approach to leadership gave people clarity on expectations and inspired them to give their best efforts.

That message—internal motivation yields better results than externally imposed stress—has been around the corporate world for a while now, but it bears repeating. After all, too many bosses who are under pressure proceed to pressure their team members—who then send that high-pressure message down the line.

In one Harvard Business School study, people kept diaries of their workday. The findings: threats, overly tight deadlines, and harsh evaluations didn’t help performance, particularly in the long run. In the worst-case scenario, people got exhausted and burned out—and quit. Brain research at Case Western Reserve University tells us why. When people are subjected to criticism of their performance, their brain’s networks for threat activate. This tightly focuses their attention on that threat—at the expense of their perception, range of thought, and flexibility. (Forget creativity.)

In the Harvard study, people found the most satisfaction—and were most productive—when they felt guided by a sense of purpose, not by external pressure. The Case Western brain study came to the same conclusion: when people were guided by their own hopes and sense of purpose, their attention was liberated and agile responses flowed more readily.

In short, to get the best results from people, it pays to invoke a larger purpose rather than to simply exert pressure on them. That strategy may go against the instinctive grain of leadership for many, but it’s what the data tells us.


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