Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Inverted-U Model

Pressure Valve

Get the pressure right.

© iStockphoto/SteveStone

Balancing Pressure and Performance
(Also known as Yerkes-Dodson Law)

Have you ever worked on a project that had a tight-but-achievable deadline, and that needed your unique, expert knowledge for it to be completed successfully? Even though you found it challenging, you may have delivered some of your best work.

Or, think back to a project you worked on where there was little pressure to deliver. The deadline was flexible and the work wasn't challenging. You may have done an average job, at best.

There's a subtle relationship between pressure and performance. When your people experience the right amount of pressure, they do their best work. However, if there's too much or too little pressure, then performance can suffer.

This relationship is explained by the Inverted-U Model, which we'll look at in this article. This helps you get the best from your people, at the same time that you keep them happy and engaged.

About the Model

The Inverted-U model (also known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law), was created by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson as long ago as 1908. Despite its age, it's a model that has stood the test of time.

It shows the relationship between pressure (or arousal) and performance.

Inverted-U Model

According to the model, peak performance is achieved when people experience a moderate level of pressure. Where they experience too much or too little pressure, their performance declines, sometimes severely.

The left hand side of the graph shows the situation where people are under-challenged. Here, they see no reason to work hard at a task, or they're in danger of approaching their work in a "sloppy," unmotivated way.

The middle of the graph shows where they're working at peak effectiveness. They're sufficiently motivated to work hard, but they're not so overloaded that they're starting to struggle. This is where people can enter a state of "Flow," the enjoyable and highly productive state in which they can do their best work. (See our article on the Flow Model for more on this.)

The right hand side of the graph shows where they're starting to "fall apart under pressure." They're overwhelmed by the volume and scale of competing demands on their attention, and they may be starting to panic.

You can manage your own levels of pressure and arousal using techniques such as Relaxation Imagery, Centering, and Deep Breathing. While you can teach these techniques to members of your team, this article focuses on structural approaches to managing pressure and performance.
The Four Influencers

The shape of the Inverted-U curve shown in Figure 1 is for illustration only - in reality, the shape of the curve will depend on the situation, and the individual person.

There are four main "influencers" that can affect this. These are:

  1. Skill Level.
  2. Personality.
  3. Trait Anxiety.
  4. Task Complexity.

We'll now look at each influencer in greater detail:

Skill Level

People's levels of skill with a given task directly influence how well they perform, which is why you need to train your people intensively if you want them to cope in high pressure situations.

For instance, if they're not practiced enough to do a task, they'll feel under serious pressure, and they won't perform well. What's more, people are less able to think in a flexible, methodical way when they're under pressure, which is why they need to be able to fall back on well-rehearsed responses.


A person's personality also affects how well he or she performs.

For instance, some psychologists believe that people who are extroverts are likely to perform better in high-pressure situations. People with an introverted personality, on the other hand, may perform better with less pressure.

Trait Anxiety

Think of trait anxiety as the level of a person's "self-talk." People who are self-confident are more likely to perform better under pressure. This is because their self-talk is under control, which means that they can stay "in flow", and they can concentrate fully on the situation at hand. By contrast, people who criticize or question themselves are likely to be distracted by their self-talk, which can cause them to lose focus in pressurized situations.

The more that people are able to lower their anxiety about a task (with practice, or with positive thinking, for example) the better they'll perform.

Task Complexity

Task complexity describes the level of attention and effort that people have to put into a task in order to complete it successfully. People can perform simple activities under quite high levels of pressure, while complex activities are better performed in a calm, low-pressure environment.

Remember that these are only influences. With experienced, good people, their self-discipline and sense of professionalism should help them avoid performance issues on the left hand side of the graph. Their training and experience will also help them on the right hand side of the graph, although there is a point at which even experienced professionals may become so overwhelmed that their work suffers.
Using the Model

The simplest way to use the Inverted-U Model is to be aware of it when you allocate tasks and projects to people on your team.

Most importantly, start by thinking about people's workloads, and about the pressure that they're already experiencing. If people are overloaded, see if you can take pressure off them - this will help them increase the quality of their work. By contrast, if they're underworked (it can happen!), you may need to keep them sharp by shortening deadlines or finding extra things for them to do.

From there, balance the influences that contribute to pressure, so that your people can perform at their best.

For instance, try to provide team members with tasks and projects of an appropriate level of complexity, and work to build confidence in people who need it.

Also, manage negativity in your team, and train your people so that they have the skills they need to do a good job. (Our article on Training Needs Assessment will help you do this.) Tools like the Four Dimensions of Relational Work can also help you match tasks to people's personalities and interpersonal skills.

However, bear in mind that you won't be able to balance influences in all situations, so make sure that you know how to motivate your team effectively, so that you can help them perform in all situations.

Note 1:
Although not addressed as part of the Inverted-U Model, it's also important to remember that people can experience pressure from other sources (for instance, from their personal lives or from any underlying concerns about their role or organization). Bear these external pressures in mind when setting deadlines and allocating tasks.

Note 2:
Don't worry about people becoming too skilled or too confident - you can use the other influencers to balance this, so that they feel the optimum amount of pressure to perform at their best.

Note 3:
Don't, whatever you do, confuse "pressure" with "stress" in this model. Stress is all about people feeling out of control, and it's a wholly negative thing. If you seek to increase people's stress (rather than increasing positive pressure), all you'll do is create an unhappy, under-performing workplace.

Key Points

The Inverted-U Model illustrates the relationship between pressure and performance. According to the model, there is an optimum level of pressure at which people perform at their best. Too much or too little pressure can lead to decreased performance.

There are four main "influencers" that can affect how much pressure people feel:

  1. Skill Level.
  2. Personality.
  3. Trait Anxiety.
  4. Task Complexity.

You can use the model by managing these four influencers, and by being aware of how they can positively or negatively influence your people's performance.

Thanks to MindTools / Mind Tools Ltd

Monday, September 3, 2012

Sales Management: Three Critical Times To Get Yourself A Coach

Sales management is consistently told they need to coach their sales people.  Blogs are written, books are published and magazines are printed around the correct way to coach sales peopleAlmost all of the sales management content that is written or trained is centered on sales managers coaching their sales people.  And for good reason:

  • Proper coaching of sales people can provide a 35% productivity increase
  • Training content retention improves 400% if sales people are coached within 30 days of the training eventsales management
  • Coaching by a sales manager to a sales person that occurs more than three days a month results in averaging 107% over quotasales coaching
  • Situational coaching of sales reps to either tenure or performance can give over a 45% boost to their sales performance

We all know that a sales manager coaching their sales people is good for business.  It is good for revenue.  It is good for retention of talent.   But there is a big gap in coaching.

Who is coaching the sales managers?

Let us first ask the question:  Why should a sales manager (even a good one) have a coach? 
  • Top athletes and the best singers have coaches.  Kobe Bryant (recent NBA Finals MVP) and Taylor Swift (won entertainer of the year 2011) are at the top of their game.  They actually have two coaches each.
  • Kids have coaches.  Tutors help them with homework trying to improve grades.  In my daughter's elementary school, 85% of the 'A' students have tutors.
  • Sales VPs have coaches.  Our firm currently coaches many Sales VP s on numerous sales force effectiveness issues.  Almost everyone who we coach already exceeds quota or will exceed quota in 2011.
  • CEO's have coaches.  Many of the companies we do business with each year have effectiveness coaches.  These CEOs all have EBITDA growth over prior year.
  • Surgeons have coaches.  Recently my neighbor had open heart surgery.  He told me before they 'knocked' him out that the surgeon was talking with someone in the operating room.  When he asked later who that was, the surgeon indicated he was his coach.  (This surgeon preformed open heart surgery on Barbara Walters recently)

The next question is: When should you have a coach?

Three critical times to get yourself a coach:

  1. New to the company.   Your on-boarding inside a company is critical to your long term success.  Many organizations don't even have an onboarding program or the ability to get a coach. Yet, this is where you form the foundation for sustainable success in an organization. Make sure you understand the need for a coach.  One who can help you get better in core SM fundamentals.
  2. Plateau.  No matter how well trained people are, few can sustain their best performance on their own.  When you have reached the top in certain metrics and stalled your performance, the numbers can typically only go one way=down.  Realizing when you have peaked is a challenge.  Most people go into denial thinking they can get back on top with extra effort.  Likely is the case.
  3. Goals: Do you have a goal that seems unattainable?  Do you want to be a VP of Sales someday?  Do you want to consistently exceed quota?  Whatever the goal, you need extra effort to achieve it.  A coach can help you stay on track through execution.  Especially the times when your failures exceed successes.  Developing a strategy and staying tactically focused is where a coach can help.

The next question is:  How do you pick the right coach?

Choosing the right coach is as important as the coaching itself.  Making a mistake can set your development and performance back dramatically.

Four key areas to choose the right coach:

  1. Experience and Empathy.  It must be someone who has done the sales management job.  To walk in someone's shoes is to really know them.  The things you need coaching on are the difficult situations and critical moments.  This is where most sales managers can improve.
  2. Personal feedback.  Every sales manager is different.  Make sure your coach can personalize the feedback for you in order to understand, accept and act on it.
  3. Impartial.  Often the key to expert feedback, this person has to communicate a strong message without concern for your feelings.  Identifying a common goal is critical to coaching to that goal. The ability to separate emotion and give the feedback as constructive is essential in your development
  4. Tactical.  You must be able to implement the coaching actions.  If the feedback and direction is too strategic or general, you simply won't act on it.  Insist the coach can provide specific suggestions you can weave into your everyday.  This way you will actually do it.

If you are lucky, your boss could turn out to be the right one.  Or it could be someone close to you personally:

Itzhak Perlman (the famous concert violinist) had his wife for a coach, a concert level violinist herself.  "I was very, very lucky. The great challenge in performing is listening to yourself.  My wife always says that I don't really know how I play. She is the extra ear."   (Sounds similar to a sales manager having a one on one with a sales rep)

It could be someone who you recruit to be your coach.  Probably it is someone you already know. Identifying the need and seeking out a coach is tough work. Spend time on it because it requires a high amount of self-esteem. You must be able to identify when you need the help, even if you are on top of your game.

 Russ Mellott, SVP of Sales at Epicor, exceeded his quota by over 20% in FY 2011. He understood the need of continuous improvement.  So, Russ hired a coach.  The result: Russ rarely ever misses a coaching session. Russ consistently makes his company goal.  And Russ just got promoted.  Call Russ and ask him if a coach has helped him.

Metrics prove that coaching will dramatically help your sales productivity. And conversely, it will help your sales reps productivity because you will be a better coach to them.  This is a critical step in the journey to be world class.

Thanks to Russ Mellott / Sales Benchmark Index