by ian J

January 18, 2017

In the early 1900’s two psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson identified the Yerkes Dodson Law which demonstrates that the levels of performance of individual is directly related to the level of mental and physical stimulation they receive.

Put simply - Giving an employee a little bit of stimulation (stress and challenge) can increase their attention and focus towards completing their work.

However, they also identified that situations where employees who were over worked (over stimulated) can be equally damaging as employees who receive no or minimal stimulation as both situations impacted both their ability and willingness to do their work.

Yerkes Dodson Law

This is only the tip of the iceberg. 

The ideal scenario is for mangers to provide employees with a balance of work activities, challenge and stimulation to help them to achieve their best.

The problem is, if an employee is given too many simple and mundane tasks (you know filing and ticking box activities) you run the risk that the employee will become bored and mentally switch off.

This is also true for the opposite extreme where due to too much challenging work and too much volume (you know late nights, long shifts and taking working home) your team members become stressed and risk physical and mental exhaustion.

But wait the problem gets worse.

In busy and high pressure work environments, we delegate tasks based on an employee’s ability. We give the hard and complex tasks to the ones who can do it, you know the one’s we trust to get the job done right. And the less important or more mundane and repetitive task are given to the newbies or the less confident or competent team members. Because this is logical right.

We can categorise most employee’s levels of productivity into 3 types; Some employees will be obviously one type while others may change between the 3 depending on the work they are doing. We then delegate tasks based on the employee’s level of performance.

EmployeeDescription Work Tasks Given
1. The under performer
  • New employees who are learning their job who require extra effort and support little guidance and feel like a third wheel
  • Experienced employees who are stuck in boring and mundane work and feel demotivated in their jobs.
  • Generally, work slower than others
  • Work quality is inconsistent and frequently full of errors
  • Require more supervision which takes up management time
  • Rarely use their initiative to find new work or ways to improve
  • Basic tasks
  • Reparative and boring tasks
  • Tasks that no one else wants to do
  • Tasks that require little mental stimulation
2. Performers
  • Employees who do their job to the required standard
  • They sometimes excel or standout,
  • They are contributing to the business, sometimes working at their best or contributing at what they see is fair for their pay and benefits.
  • Generally, they use their initiative to find new work or ways to improve
  • General tasks that require effort and concentration
  • Occasional basic tasks
  • Some difficult and more challenging tasks
3. The Over performer
  • Employees who go above and beyond the call of duty more often than not
  • The go to person when you need something done urgently or that is overly challenging
  • Willing to put themselves out in order to get the job done
  • Often use their initiative to find new work or ways to improve
  • Harder more complex jobs
  • Alternative jobs (outside of their job description)
  • Often extra work that has not been completed or done properly by other employees

As a manager, our challenge is to get the task done to the best of our ability using the resources we have. It is human nature to find the path of least resistance and to do this we tend to give the complex jobs to the more competent and willing employees and the lesser jobs to the new or under performing team members,

Why? - Because you know the job will get done and it makes your life easier.

We do this without realising that we risk not just demoralising our team members but also causing issues which will eventually impact their performance.

The Risk

The Underperformers

New employees and the less able or willing experienced employees are given simple and easy tasks to keep them busy and sometimes just ‘out of the way’. Tasks are repetitive requiring little or no simple supervision. They get little responsibility causing the employees to lose motivation and drive to perform.  

Knowing that their jobs they are given are boring and mundane and that no one else is doing. Over time they begin to feel undervalued and a low sense of self-worth or commitment to their job or the organisation.

Over Performers.

The high value employees are given more important and complex tasks that require more focus and attention. As other employees fail to meet deadlines or deliver sub-standard quality, the over performers are given more and more tasks to do.

What was once an enjoyable challenge and a sense of pride, eventually becomes a burden causing feelings of resentment and frustration as they see others ‘slacking off’ and not pulling their weight. Soon it means longer shifts and taking work home; their private life suffers and soon they become stressed and eventually sick.

The Performers

The average performers who are balancing in the middle will either pick up the slack of the over performers running the risk of following in their footsteps; or they will observe the impact that has happened to their team members and take the foot off the throttle to prevent them from getting over worked or just jump ship to new job.

Does this sound familiar?

The Solution

Obviously, this is a simplification of most workplaces;  however,  to support your teams you need to

  • Allocate work tasks for all employees that are varied and interesting, providing both a challenge as well as a release from the chaos of the pressures of day to day work.
  • Provide the right support and training for under performing employees to enable them to get up to speed quickly.
  • Switch job tasks and activities, employees are able to change their focus enabling their minds to refresh as well as giving themselves an opportunity to look back at their work with fresh eyes.

Obviously, there are going to be constant challenges such as tight deadlines, business needs as well as the need for training and supervision.   However, if your team feel neglected and devalued they may leave for a new job or stay as a disengaged team member waiting for something else to come along.

Let me know your thoughts.  leave a comment or some feedback in the section below. 

About the author 

ian J

I have been involved in Learning & Development for over 15 years in Australia, and the UK. Having worked with a range of public and private business in both private and public sector. I have seen a lot of what works and also a lot of what doesn't.

I believe that with the right tools, guidance and support anyone can train better on the job.

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