The relationship between performance and pressure follows a bell curve. It shows that individuals have an optimum level of pressure under which they perform at their highest levels. If pressure is above or below this, their performance falls. At this level they have the highest chance of being in “flow”.

Summary by The World of Work Project


The Relationship Between Performance and Pressure

A little pressure is good, too much pressure is bad.

An individual’s performance is empirically related to the level of pressure they feel through a roughly bell-shaped graph. Individuals have an optimum level of pressure under which they perform at their highest levels.

When they are under this optimum level of pressure they most likely to experience “Flow”. Flow the feeling of being “in the zone” or fully energized, focused on and enjoying the task at hand. If pressure is higher or lower than this, then their performance falls.

At low levels of pressure, performance is low as individuals are often bored and lack any sense of urgency. They are easily distracted, their minds wander and mistakes are likely to happen.

At high levels of pressure, performance is equally low as individuals start to experience stress. They may be overwhelmed by what is being asked of them, unable to focus and distracted with negative thoughts and emotions that prevent them performing well.

A diagram showing a bell curve which is the relationship between Flow performance and pressure

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How to Use the Curve in your Team

The pressure and performance curve is a great diagnostic tool to use within your team. It’s also something individuals can use on their own to get a sense of how they are feeling at the start of each day. If they are feeling to the left of the curve, they can seek new or more challenging tasks to help move them to the right. Similarly, if they are starting their day feeling stretched, they can look to re-prioritize or seek help in an effort to return to peak performance.

The performance and pressure curve can also be used as part of a team activity, perhaps in morning scrum, huddle or stand up meeting. To use this tool effectively in these meetings, a large copy of the curve should be included on the team’s information center, huddle board or near the Kanban wall.

At the end of each meeting, each team member should place an avatar of themselves on the curve. They should also briefly explain how they are feeling and why they are feeling that way. Once all the team members have placed themselves on the curve, individuals who are to the left of the curve should absorb some work from individuals to the right of the curve in an effort to move all members of the team towards peak performance.

Learning More

Being in the optimal state of pressure and performance is a powerful thing, particularly when we find ourselves in the state of Flow. This state of temporal hypo-frontality is one of the most rewarding states we can be in as people. To learn more, it’s worth exploring Flow further, as well as its sibling state of mindfulness.

The World of Work Project View

The performance / Pressure curve has been empirically proven, but is also fairly easy to simply relate to. It’s a great tool and a great way to think about the impact of pressure of individuals. It’s also a great tool to share with teams and individuals to use as a daily / weekly self-assessment of how people are doing.

It’s worth noting that some people will argue that the relationship doesn’t apply to them and that they simply keep performing better under pressure. This just isn’t true. They may simply not have experienced enough pressure to move them into the stressed zone.

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A good source information for this topic is Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi’s classic book: “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”.

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