Stress: the great malady of the 21st Century. It is blamed for depression, anxiety, physical and mental pathology. It is attributed to relationship difficulties, financial burden, worries about macro issues like climate change and geopolitical turmoil.

Most of all, stress is related to work. A recent global survey of more than 1000 companies in 15 countries found that workplace stress is on the rise, with more than 60% of respondents reporting elevated workplace stress.

We intuitively sense this to be unhealthy. The World Health Organization (WHO) agrees. Health, defined by the WHO as “a positive state of complete physical, mental and social well-being,” can apparently only be found in the workplace when there is an absence of harmful conditions. So, reduce the number of stressors and workplace health increases.

But is stress really all bad? In our enthusiasm to target and eliminate stress are we overlooking its benefits? Up to a certain level, stress is helpful and constructive. It urges us to take action, focus and deliver our best effort. This is called eustress and can be thought of as healthy stress, as opposed to distress, which is the unhealthy stress people are normally referring to.

Most distress in the workplace can be traced back to the individual’s requirement – or perceived requirement – to perform. Finding ways to deliver high performance without burning out is critical to sustainable success.

However, ongoing growth and development cannot rely on action alone. In order to evolve and develop the deeper satisfaction that makes work truly worthwhile the individual needs to engage his or her purpose and personal meaning.

The balance of these two outcomes – performance and presence – produces an optimal work state that delivers results and fulfillment in equal measure. In reaching for this equilibrium, it is useful to employ two different U-shaped theories.

Theory U
Refined and published by Otto Scharmer, Theory U is a powerful approach to fostering and managing healthy transformation in individuals and systems. It relies on a re-interpretation of decision-making in the present moment. Instead of making decisions based on past data, Theory U invites us to make decisions based on the content of the emerging future.

In a world and work environment that is changing so quickly, information from the past is redundant too quickly. Leaning into the future and determining actions based on that information is a genuine 21st Century skill, which Scharmer calls Presencing.

As the name implies, Presencing asks the practitioner to become deeply attuned to what is happening in the systems around her, before connecting with what is happening within herself and finally emerging back into the world with a new orientation.

The process has seven primary stages:

Downloading is our current state in action. It is to perceive the world in the same limited way we have always done. It doesn’t permit creativity or new possibilities.

As we start to move down the U we begin Seeing which is when we begin to suspend our habitual judgments.

Sensing is when our awareness begins to expand beyond our limited sense of self; the “moment we redirect our attention from objects to source.”

At the bottom of the U we move into Presencing, a state of connection to the source of our potential and meaning. This is when we are asked to let go of old, limiting patterns, assumptions and behaviors. We begin to listen to our calling, our true self.

Crystallizing is when we begin to see the future that wants to emerge from a deep connection to this authentic self. This is not an ego-driven perspective of what we want – it is what needs to be.

Prototyping involves action. Here we align our thoughts, vision, heart and hands in testing new ways of being in the world.

Performing represents the embodiment of a new way of being through new practices processes motivated by purpose, rather than habit and convention.

This is a powerful transformational methodology that complements any approach to change, whether individually-guided or supported by a coach.

Inverted-U Theory

In a way, the Inverted-U Theory carries on from the end of Scharmer’s Theory U process. Understanding this approach allows you to harness your potential in achieving results that matter to you.

The Inverted-U theory posits that results are based on the interplay between pressure and performance. It recognizes that without pressure very little happens and performance is insufficient, but with too much pressure distress kicks in and performance suffers again.

Four factors are considered critical to achieving the right balance of pressure and performance:

1- Skill Level.

A task will generate maximum performance if it is sufficiently challenging to establish pressure to perform, while not being too challenging to overwhelm the individual and undermine performance.

2- Personality.

How we deal with pressure is also related to our personalities – some people enjoy and respond to pressure better than others. It is important to develop a thorough understanding of your personality in order to manage your work and expectations well. As a start, try the Myers-Briggs based 16 Personalities Test (free) or the deeply comprehensive Enneagram test ($12).

3- Trait Anxiety.

Performance is directly connected to our own perceptions of our performance. Those who are more negative in their self-judgment are more likely to perform worse and feel more pressure than those who have less negative self-talk. As we have discussed before, this is the territory of the inner critic which takes awareness and emotional adaptability to navigate.

4- Task Complexity.

A more difficult, more complex task should have more space and time to complete, allowing for lower pressure over an extended period. In doing so, performance is allowed to peak – complex tasks completed under high pressure and tight deadlines seldom produce reliable or pleasing results.

By considering these for ‘influencers’ from INverted-U Theory it becomes easier to manage work in a way that allows you to perform at a consistently high standard. By incorporating Scharmer’s Theory U, you can ensure that such performance is directed at work that is meaningful and important to you and the greater whole.