Moderate stress levels can enhance performance, claims new research

StressA new research project conducted jointly by the University of Reading and Ashridge Business School claims that managers can perform better and make better decisions when they are exposure on a regular basis to stressful situations. The research applied principles from the science of neurobiology in measuring changes in the heart rates of 350 managers aged from 26-55 to analyse their performance under pressure. All of the participants in the research were current students on an Ashridge management course who took part in simulated high-pressure executive situation, such as conflict resolution, high-level decision-making and handling difficult employees and conversations. Their physical and psychological responses were continually monitored over two days, including sleep patterns, heart rate and psychometric tests.

The research found that high stress situations and pressure and their associated emotions such as anxiety, anger and fear can adversely affect concentration levels, decision making and our ability to control emotions but that the stress of leadership can also be a powerful way to increase resourcefulness and an ability to make better decisions in the future. Much depends on the levels of stress involved because when the body and brain are moderately stimulated by stress, decision-making, learning and the formation of memories are all enhanced. But when people are faced with excessively stressful situations, the primeval fight or flight mechanism kicks in and our ability to make reasoned decisions diminishes or even shuts down completely.

Dr Megan Reitz, TLE Programme Director and co- researcher, Ashridge Business School, said: “Simulated experiences result in physiological changes and brain muscle development. Future leaders need to experience the critical incidents that they are likely to face in their working life. If practised now, away from the office, then when they are encountered later in work – when the response to them really matters – managers are more likely to have the ‘muscle memory’ needed to be able to react effectively to stressful situations. In these uncertain times we need people who can effectively lead in ambiguity; who are prepared for the unexpected and can manage their emotions and anxieties. It’s not just pilots, surgeons, F1 drivers or astronauts who benefit from simulation exercises to prepare for highly stressful and challenging incidents – business leaders do, too.”