Performance Excellence and Frazzle

Have you ever had a day like this?

  • You are working hard, yet you cannot complete tasks effectively.
  • You forget what you were doing a minute ago.
  • You have difficulty concentrating, and—as much as you try to—you cannot keep your mind on one task.

If you have days like these, you are not alone. Many of us feel frazzled (hopefully, only occasionally) when stress becomes so great that it starts interfering with our performance.

Contrary to popular belief, stress is not all bad. In fact, stress can be a positive, motivational force that gives us the ability to sharpen our performance and rise to a challenging occasion. However, the relationship between stress and performance follows a predictable bell-shaped curve, where optimal performance deteriorates as stress increases (1908, Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson).


What is frazzle?

Frazzle is the performance zone associated with what we know as distress. It is the part of the Yerkes Dodson bell-shaped curve just beyond optimal performance, where stress increases to a point that results in deterioration of performance. When in frazzle mode, the quantity of hormones released by our stress response lead to a cascade of events, which have the ability to interfere with our ability to learn, innovate, be creative, or even effectively manage our time. Furthermore, if we hang out in frazzle mode for too long, our body systems start malfunctioning, making us susceptible to illness and potential long-term damage to organs and bodily functions.

A different perspective on why employees don’t do what they are supposed to do

When I was first nominated to enter management development, I was expected to read a dozen best-selling leadership books as part of my mandatory training. As much as I enjoyed learning from this incredible list of experts, I noticed something interesting: Every single one of them looked at employees a bit like they were “problems” that managers had to “solve” in order to achieve individual and organizational performance excellence.

The truth is, most of the time the real culprit causing poor performance is not bad employees but negative, physiological consequences, which take place when we humans are stretched too thin without adequate time in between to reset.

We are not machines, but beautifully complex body systems requiring ample time to rest and digest experiences in between jumping over hurdles. Research has proven that performance is negatively affected when the demands of work and life become greater than our ability to bounce back to our calm, balanced state, known as homeostasis. When we are in our neutral state, our heart is beating at the correct rate (80-100 beats per minute), our temperature is just right (97-98 degrees Fahrenheit), we have access to the executive part of our brain, and our immune and digestive systems are working well. Every demand we place on an organism produces stress—a temporary state where our body goes off-balance to meet a demand.

When we are burning the candle at both ends—going to work early and then working late at night to meet yet another work deadline—we don’t consciously think how, in order to meet that deadline, we are actually taking our body off-balance temporarily. For example, whether we are an Olympian running to win a Gold Medal, or a mere, corporate executive giving a presentation to our peers and boss, our heart rate and body temperature will increase above and beyond our normal, balanced states to meet that demand. If we keep this up for too long, we spend less and less time at an optimal heart rate or temperature level.

The sum total of all the adjustments an organism has to make to return the body to its’ balanced state in the face of stressors is called allostatic load (McEwan and Stellar, 1993). The higher the allostatic load, the more our performance deteriorates and the higher the probability is that we will experience functional organ and body damage.

How do we incorporate all the insights that science has lent us regarding the impact of stress to increase individual and organizational health and optimal performance? Here are the most valuable lessons I learned from the team of eight people I had the privilege of leading in my very first job as a manager.

  1. We need to start living our values outside of employee handbooks. Are we really supporting work-life balance if we are expected to give up our lunch to meet yet another deadline, or to take a Sunday night red-eye flight to be at a noon meeting across the country? Work-life balance initiatives sound great inside the pages of our employee manuals, but they actually lead to peak performance when these values are supported by actions.


  1. We need to invest in building a culture of community at the workplace. When life’s demands become too high, we humans tend to find comfort in the support kindly offered to us by people who care about us and show up at times of stress. Beyond revenues and corporate objectives, one effective antidote to frazzle is to create time and space to connect with employees as humans, above and beyond corporate meetings and performance metrics. Let’s face it, we all spend a significant amount of our life at work. It is unlikely that we will go the extra mile for a boss or a company that does not really care about us as human beings.


  1. We need to start talking about stress openly. We cannot possibly eliminate stress in life, but we can increase our stress resilience. How can we build stress resilience though, if we turn a blind eye to the hidden, negative impact of stress? What if our annual business plans included SMART (specific, measurable, action-oriented, results-oriented, and time-specific) goals around stress resilience?  We need to stop seeing stress as a sign of weakness in employees, but as a larger problem and a significant health and safety issue in the workplace.


  1. We need to put down the stick and give more carrots. Despite the robust evidence that behaviorism does not work, fear-based leadership still appears to be the king. In fact, carrot and stick leadership is wreaking havoc in corporate America, costing a staggering amount of dollars in lost productivity and health issues. It’s time to truly see employees as valuable assets. After all, nobody wakes up in the morning thinking, “Today is a great day for me to be a low performer.” Isn’t it time we see with eyes wide open how much a threatened brain hampers performance?


  1. Happy employees really do make productive employees. When we review the philosophy and strategies of the companies that continually make the list of the best companies to work for, we can clearly see that these companies provide their employees with unconventional perks that go beyond additional pay. These perks can include on-site gyms or childcare, flex-time options, or even providing employees with designated time to meditate or get massages at work. The common thread amongst these exemplary organizations is that they realize the importance of providing the time and space for their people to rest and regroup in order for them to do amazing things for their companies in return. And they often do!


I was extremely frazzled and stressed out when I was given the honor and responsibility to lead a team for the first time in my career a little over a decade ago.

As it turned out though, my people shone for me, and in nine months our team moved from ranking at the bottom of our company to being the number one performing team in the nation! Although I was somewhat unconventional in my leadership approach (I cooked Greek food for my team at my home and even succeeded in changing company policies a couple of times to support my teams’ needs) it was not really me, but my people who actually realized this great accomplishment.

Every organization in any industry needs to perform well in order to remain profitable and survive against market variables. That means we all have to stretch ourselves to meet performance expectations.

But if we wish to see exceptional performance then active steps—such as the five steps listed above—need to be implemented to neutralize the negative impact of frazzle and stress.

And, if we are truly serious about performance excellence, here’s the most potent thing we can do to launch our employees’ superhero: We need to actively reflect that we “have their back!”

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