Goal setting stress and challenge

The dictionary defines stress as “a pressure or tension exerted on another object; a demand on physical or mental energy; or forcibly exerted influence usually causing distress or strain.”    In short stress is any factor, positive or negative that requires a response or change.  In medical research it is widely recognized that chronic ongoing stress can lead to illness, aggravate existing disease conditions and accelerate aging.

There is a need to be in constant interchange with our surroundings and it is this interchange that creates stress.  If looking at reality this is simply a fact of life.  There is no way to avoid stresses in life.  Every organism, including man must be able to adapt to changing environmental and social conditions in order to survive.  However, over time the continual need to adapt to change can disrupt the metabolic balance of the human organism.

Common stressors for people today include most aspects of life – family, financial, emotional and environmental, nutritional factors, as well as personal and work-related stresses and relationships.    According to research nearly half a million people in the UK have work-related stress that is making them ill, leading to the need to take sick leave.  It is estimated that 12 million working days are lost each year in the UK due to stress-related illness and in some cases even injury. (

Stress in the work place can be a result of different factors, in general there is a mismatch between the requirements of the job, the employee’s capabilities, the resources available and the needs of the worker.

The concept of job stress is often confused with challenge.  Clearly these concepts are not the same.  Challenge, if at the appropriate level, energizes us psychologically and physically.  It motivates us to learn new skills and master our jobs. When a challenge is met, we feel relaxed and satisfied, proud and perhaps even excited about what we have achieved Thus, challenge is an important ingredient for healthy and productive work. The importance of challenge in our work lives keeps us learning, growing and developing.  

A challenge becomes stressful when there is either rejection that the goal cannot be achieved because it looks and feels overwhelming or when job demands cannot be met, due to employee capability and or lack of necessary resources.  Very quickly the situation can change from focused and motivated to achieve, to exhaustion from trying and the sense of ability to accomplish has  turned into feelings of stress.

We know that what is stressful for one person is not necessarily stressful for another because of individual characteristics, including coping mechanisms, previous experience, level of maturity and possibly personality. The questions therefore are how can we as managers and leaders:

·      challenge team members, use this challenge to motivate, but not stress them to a point of no return?

·      identify when the line between challenge and stress has been crossed?

Victor Vroom’s Expectancy Theory helps to answer these questions.  His theory is ensuring that there is a sound relationship for the employee between effort and performance.  These feelings of motivation and satisfaction are further increased if the individual and or team can see the relationship between good performance or outcomes and reward, especially if it is a reward that is valued.  Feedback cannot be underestimated when challenging team members, as well as working with Vroom’s model.  Both gaining feedback and giving feedback, help us as managers and leaders to understand whether the challenge is about to become stress.




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