WATCH: Where Are You On The Stress-Performance Curve? – The Yerkes Dodson Performance Curve

Today, I want to talk about the optimal level of pressure stress that you need to be at peak performance. Back in 1908, Yerkes Dodson, did some very interesting research and they discovered what they called the ‘Inverted U’. They put together a graph, where you got pressure along the bottom.  Where this is ‘low pressure’, and this is ‘high pressure’, ‘high levels of pressure’; This is ‘low performance’ and this ‘high levels of performance’.

Inverted U

They found out that actually when you have  ‘low pressure’, your level of performance isn’t very high. And, when pressure is just right at that perfect spot, that sweet spot, you get a high performance. And, that links nicely to what the latest discovery from the field of neuroscience discovering about adrenaline and the amount of adrenaline in our bodies. Because if we don’t have enough adrenaline, actually, our performance falters were a little bit sloppy, we don’t really have the motivation to get something done.

Just the right amount of pressure in an impending deadline or something like that and we begin to get right in our peak performance where we are firing all four cylinders and we’re really effective and in high performance.

However, as you can see, things can get out of hand and if pressure increases performance begins to falter. And if you get to this area here, you need to be able to have a good support system where you can tolerate the pressure if you can be mindful, if you can keep a broad perspective, if you can have a support structure around you that helps you keep things into perspective with reframing and whatever it is that you need to do to manage that extra pressure and keep it in perspective.

However, beyond that the pressure increases and it begins to get toxic, and this is where things begin to get out of hand. Because this area of toxic pressure means that your Pre-Frontal Cortex, the bit of your brain that you do all of your thinking begins to falter.

For example, you won’t be able to understand as effectively, you won’t be able to make decisions effectively, you won’t be able to memorize and recall effectively and you lose your ability to inhibit your behaviour. All that means that you’re not going to be so effective. So, watch out where you are on your sweet spot and above all watch out where your people are so that you know when to give them extra support so they can tolerate the pressure but watch out if they fall into the toxic behaviour because that’s when real trouble starts.


So, that’s Food for Thought Insights for busy Leaders and Managers. Thank you very much!


With best regards,

David Klaasen

Talent4Performance help business leaders clarify complexity. We inspire people and drive continuous performance improvement, so they can convert thinking into action and results.

©David Klaasen – 2023