When you hear the term "peak performer," what do you think of? Odds are it’s someone who routinely operates under intense stress, getting the job done regardless of the difficulties. We think of athletes, lawyers, astronauts. But in their groundbreaking recent book The Leading Brain, researchers Friederike Fabritius and Hans W. Hagemann offer a more nuanced take on what it means to be a peak performer. To Fabritius and Hagemann, peak performance doesn’t necessarily mean thriving amid intense stress. Instead, it means finding your sweet spot -- the amount of stress (or using their term, “arousal”) that allows you to function at your highest level.
If you’re the kind of person who flourishes when a colleague calls in sick and you have to take their place at a presentation, and you produce your best work under the pressure of tight deadlines, then your optimal arousal level is high. If you prefer to work in a highly controlled environment and are overwhelmed by last-minute changes and intense pressure, then your optimal arousal level is low.
Why do people’s reactions to stress vary so wildly? It goes down to the chemical level: Scientists have identified three neurotransmitters that play key roles in our performance and arousal levels. But contrary to widely held belief, just because someone can’t take extreme pressure doesn’t mean they’re not capable of performing at a very high level. It simply means they need to find a stable, calm situation that will allow them to do their best.
So rather than try to fight against your biological makeup, you should be aware of your stress sweet spot -- and if you aren’t in it already, find a way to create it. Maybe that means making changes at work, or collaborating with colleagues to raise or lower your pressure. Or, intriguingly, Fabritius and Hagemann found that exercise can help. If you’re a low-stress worker, do relaxing exercises such as walking and yoga to keep your stress level low. If you’re a high-stress worker, you can boost your neurotransmitter levels by engaging in high-intensity workouts, competitive sports and other activities that get your heart pumping.
But the sweet spot isn’t just about you. If you’re a manager or a boss, knowing your team members’ sweet spots is key to maximizing everyone’s productivity. Take note of how each of your colleagues tackles their to-do list; watch their reaction to an urgent client need or a schedule change. If you’re feeling especially transparent, you can give them a copy of this article to discuss during one-on-ones.
Armed with knowledge of their sweet spots, you can adjust your work environment and delegate tasks based on what conditions will make each person the most productive. For example, when a project seems like it’s falling apart and the deadline is around the corner, turn to your high-arousal colleagues to save the day. Or when you have a tedious, long-term project that needs to be completed with precision, give it to someone with a low-arousal sweet spot; they’ll appreciate the stability it offers.
You can also tailor your communication style to match your team’s ideal stress levels. When giving messages to low-stress individuals, particularly about stressful news, give them lots of details about the situation and their next steps to help them feel in control. And when sharing similar news with high-arousal individuals, emphasize the excitement and urgency of the message -- because that will ignite their fire and raise their neurotransmitter levels.
The stress sweet spot should come as good news to everyone, because it means that stress isn’t an inherently good or bad thing. It just means that we all need to know how we work best with it. That way, nobody’s wasting time stressing about the wrong thing.