Distress, Eustress and Creative Tension – A Team Challenge Hourglass Learning Experience

Stress is one’s physical, mental and emotional response to any kind of situations and there are two types of stress: Distress and Eustress.

- Distress is ‘bad’ stress. Distress is the negative response when one is unable to cope with the stress. Tension builds when one is distress and it leads to the feelings ofpain and agony.

- Eustress is ‘good’ stress. Eustress can be defined as beneficial stress and it refers to the positive cognitive response to stress, one that gives a sense of fulfilment.The physical reaction to distress and eustress are quite similar. When one heartbeat increases and starts feeling tense, is he feeling anxious and nervous, or is he feeling excited or motivated?

Stress and Adventure Learning

Stress is an essential part of effective Adventure Learning because facilitators tap on participants’ emotional responses in the experience to generate meaningful learning outcomes. This is why risk is such an important component in any AL experiences. Risk is associated with the elements of unknown and uncertainty and these elements usually evoke stressed responses. Facilitators need to be able to manage participant stress. When put in stress situations, participants will choose one of these three responses – flight, fight or freeze.

When participants are distressed, their most natural inclination is to ‘get-out’ of the situation. They will seek to rationalise and support their worries by constantly searching for excuses or signs that things are not working out for them. Distress also leads to poor judgment, which affects the participants’ ability to make sound decision.

On the other hand, participants driven by eustress are motivated by the challenge of uncertainty. They will choose to ‘get-in’. To them, uncertainty offers the opportunity for exploration. Exploration is characterised by discovery and learning.People choose to ‘fight’ when they are motivated by eustress. Eustress also sparks creativity because it encourages individuals to problem solve and look for ways to move forward and this includes collaborating with others.

Cultivating Eustress on the Team Challenge Hourglass (TCH)

The sight of the TCH immediately evokes two responses from the participants – flight or fight. The idea of being suspended 24 meters in the air is a thought some participants are unable to cope with and the ‘flight’ mentality naturally became their first respond.The other group of participants are genuinely excited about the idea of climbing the TCH. The challenge and the sense of fulfilment that comes from the experience drives these participants ‘fight’ mentality.

Distress-ed participants choose flight, eustress-ed participants opt to fight. The question here is, what can facilitators do to cultivate more eustress and encourage more participants to embrace the challenge of the TCH? Here are a few suggestions:

1)      Focus on the outcome.

  1. On a personal level, the sense of fulfilment and accomplishment.
  2. At a team level, the feeling of peak team performance.

 

2)      Put participants in a state where they feel that they are in control.

  1. Practice ‘Challenge by Choice’ – participants have the option to leave the TCH at any point in time.
  2. Allow participants to set their own target by choosing any of the four rest cages as their desired end point. Upon reaching the targeted rest cage, open the choice for participants to set a higher target or leave the TCH as agreed upon.
  3. When gearing up, let participants put on the harness by themselves, with as little physical assistance as possible. This is to reinforce the thought that the participants are in control of their own situation.

 

3)      Celebrate ‘small wins’.

  1. a.      Acknowledge the effort and success each time the team reaches one of the rest cages. It can be as simple as exchanging high-fives. The main idea here is to recognize the effort, celebrate the small but to some, a significant accomplishment, and energizes the team.

 

4)      Build eustress progressively.

  1. Prior to the climb, conduct trust building activities, such as Low Elements, to build confidence.
  2. Have participants talk to each other before the climb. It can be on anything related to the experience, for example, how excited they are or how members can assist each other on the TCH. Verbalizing thoughts will help in building commitment.

 

Cultivating Eustress in the Organization through Creative Tension

The space between the ground and the top of the Hourglass represents the gap between an organization vision and its current state. The TCH is a fitting metaphor that describes the concept of Creative Tension, which was discussed by Peter Senge inhis work, The Fifth Discipline:

“The gap between vision and current reality is also a source of energy. If there were no gap, there would be no need for any action to move towards the vision. We call this gap creative tension.Creative tension is where people honestly and clearly see where they are (present reality), as well as where they would like to be (their vision for the future). Creative tension lies in the space between reality and vision. People can harness these concepts to both push and pull people and organizations toward change.”

The gap between vision and current reality exists in all organizations; however, the type of energy that can be harnessed from the gap varies between individuals. ‘Distress’ or ‘eustress’ is an individual stress response to the gap. People draw positive energy (eustress) from the gap when they are excited by the challenge. People can also draw negative energy (distress) when the gap appears to be unrealistic or it makes them feel nervous and afraid.  How people respond to the gap and the type of energy it harness will affect their level of desired to close it.

The product of distress is negative energy and it often leads to the ‘flight’ mentality. But in reality, especially so in business organizations, people are rarely able to ‘fly’ completely out of the situation; rather, a more common effect of distress is for organization and people to lower their vision.

Creative Tension produces eustress, whichmotivates and drives people to take actions. Organizations can create Creative Tension by managing the gap between vision and current reality.

VisionBy vision, we do not mean organizational vision only. Vision could also mean goals, targets and objectives. Vision here refers to both the state and the outcome of the effort.

Here are some key questions to ask: How is the vision perceived by others? What are the intrinsic and/or extrinsic value people are able to draw from pursing the vision? Is the vision aligned to the personal goals of the individuals?Does the visioninspire people to take action?

To pull people into the vision, leaders should not focus on the outcome of the vision but rather, the process of visioning. Visioning is the act of creating the future together as a team. Visioning as a process refers to the open and free exchange of ideas by all members of the group. It talks about where the team should be heading and how it should get there. In visioning, not all views will beaccepted; however,all views must be heard, respected and taken into consideration. Visioning is a shared experience and the outcome is a shared vision. By involving everyone in the visioning process, people are able to witness, understand and appreciate how the vision is formulated. Sense of ownership towards the vision increased because people feel that they have contributed to the process and have made a difference to the outcome.When people have invested the effort in visioning, they are also more likely to continue the effort to see the vision through. More often than not, people tend to feel more motivated working towards visions they have co-created than visions set by others.

Current RealityA challenging vision can be a source of motivation and positive energy.However, people must feel that they have the capacity and capability or the potential within themselvesto attain the vision, in order for them to draw eustress from the Creative Tension. If the gap is too wide between the vision and their current abilities, people will struggle to experience any meaningful results despite their best effort. Over time, this continuous pattern of ‘effort but no results’, will lead to self-doubt, drop in self-confidence and eventually, people will give up the pursue of the vision. This is if people try. For some, the wide gap between vision and current reality will lead to an immediate ‘flight’ response.

To cultivate eustress, people need to feel that they have control over the situation (creative tension) and one way to heighten this sense of control is by balancing the degree of difficulty required to fulfil the vision and the existing capacity, capabilities and potential (current reality) of the people. This balancing act is fully illustrated in MihályCsíkszentmihályi‘Flow’ theory:

On the vertical axis is the degree of difficulty of a task and on the horizontal axis is the person’s skills set. When there is a mismatch between the level of task difficulty and skill, people will either be frustrated or bored.

The ideal state is the ‘Flow Zone’ in the middle where level of challenge matches the level of skills. People develop eustress and feel motivated in the ‘Flow Zone’ because they experience meaningful progress.

‘Flow’ theory and Creative Tension shares the common idea of generating positive energy by balancing what needs to be done and what people can do. In the earlier rubber band illustration of Creative Tension, if the hands are too close to each other, the band limps and appears lifeless. If the hands are too wide, the band snaps.

An important step in achieving ‘Flow’ is the assessment of the current reality. Here are some questions to ask:Do the people have the capacity, capabilities and potential to fulfil the vision? If not, how can they be prepared, trained and developed. Are there sufficient resources? Do the people have enough support?

Another way to achieve ‘Flow’ is to divide the vision into stages and adopt a scaffold approach to attain it. In their work, The Leadership Challenge, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posners use the term ‘small wins’ to describe how leader can break down very challenging tasks into stages. The completion of each stage boosts morale and creates more eustress, and it gives people more confidence to move to the next stage.Each stage of the vision represents another mini layer of Creative Tension and the level of challenge at each stage should match the skills level, in order to achieve ‘Flow’ and create eustress. As such, to ensure that the vision is scaffold in a meaningful and purposeful manner, the current reality of the people must be considered.

Summary

Every organization faces the challenge of closing the gap between what it aspires to achieve and the current reality. To harness positive energy from this gap to motivate and propel people towards the aspirations, organizations should look at the way the aspirations are derived and the people’s existing capabilities.

Written by Joey NG (Facilitator)