Updated: Jul 20
It’s no secret that stress is bad for us. Physically, stress affects everything from impaired cognition to high blood pressure. A high-stress work environment results in more errors, lower productivity and job dissatisfaction. But new research shows that not enough stress can be just as bad.
In fact, low to moderate amounts of stress are necessary for healthy growth. While chronic, ongoing stress or large doses of uncontrollable stress is indeed harmful, it turns out that having little or no stress in the workplace also has a negative impact on employees and company culture.
Workforce research indicates that the employee engagement slump continues in the U.S. According to 2022 Gallup data, just over one-third of employees (34%) are engaged and 16% are actively disengaged in their work and workplace, based on a random sample of 57,022 full- and part-time employees.
61% of American employees say they are burned out at work
33% of workers say boredom is the main reason they want to leave their jobs
33% of employees say they don’t trust their employers
75% of employees quit their job because of their boss
Research indicates that moderate levels of stress bring out the best in employees. They are more engaged, more resilient, and better problem solvers and innovators when they are working toward goals that are challenging but within reach. Moreover, when people feel as if their work is meaningful and valuable to the organization, they are even more motivated to contribute.
The Goldilocks Principle
Finding the sweet spot of workplace challenges will help keep employees motivated and engaged without burning them out. Smart leaders understand the power of just right challenges. Tasks that are too difficult or goals that seem unattainable result in frustration. Tasks that are too easy or seem inconsequential are boring and often overlooked. To be highly motivating, tasks need to be right on that border between success and failure. The human brain thrives when we master a skill just outside of our comfort zone. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.
The brain loves a challenge, but motivation is directly impacted by the level of difficulty. This is the Goldilocks Principle. The Goldilocks Principle states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right. When we engage in a challenge that requires focus and effort, we are much more motivated to mastery. For example, imagine you love basketball. If you challenge a kindergartner to a game of 21, you probably won’t be playing for long. On the other hand, it might be exciting to play with LeBron James, but the talent mismatch is likely to result in either intimidation, frustration or both. When we play with someone who challenges us but we're still capable of winning - that's when we are most motivated.
A healthy brain thrives on challenge, especially challenges that are personally meaningful and engage different parts of the brain simultaneously. This is because our brains are designed for complexity. Studies show that challenging cognitive tasks like problem solving, learning something new and collaborating on a project with a friend not only strengthen the brain but also activate the reward and pleasure center.
At the most basic level, humans want to avoid pain and experience pleasure. Our pleasure-seeking behavior engages the reward system and is what keeps us motivated to set and reach new goals. When you do something pleasurable, your brain releases dopamine to make you feel good mentally and physically. Our brains even release dopamine before we engage in pleasurable activities. It’s the expectation of the reward rather than the reward itself that has the strongest influence on our emotional reactions and memories of what’s pleasurable.
Dopamine is one of the happy chemicals that keeps the prefrontal cortex – the region of the brain responsible for higher-level executive functions – engaged.
An overproduction of stress hormones engages the survival brain and shuts down the neural pathway to our prefrontal cortex to allocate all neural resources to deal with the threat. Problem-solving, complex decision-making and impulse control disappears, as does our access to multiple perspectives.
But there is a fine line between motivation and frustration. Herein lies the “Goldilocks Rule.” When you do the same things over and over, the challenge diminishes along with the dopamine rush. When the challenge is too great, frustration generates stress hormones engaging the survival brain and pausing the thinking brain. The key is to find the challenges that are “just right.”
Challenges that push us to reach just beyond our comfort zone also physically change the brain by creating new connections between brain cells. So, in addition to changing our neurochemistry, just right challenges also enhance our neural connectivity –making us even smarter!
Great leaders strive to create a culture of contribution – an essential element of organizational success. It is the kind of culture that values people, empowers them to be a significant part of the team, and ignites passion in them without burning them out. When people are passionate about their work, they look for new challenges, new learning, new and better ways to contribute.