Working with Derailers: Coaching Insights at the Top of the Stress-performance Curve



*This post was authored by Rebecca Ghanadan, PhD, founder of Aspis Coaching Group member of the Hogan Coaching Network.

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Derailers are important because they are the habitual behavioral patterns that can get in our way. Typically operating below the level of conscious awareness, these behaviors are often easy to ignore. But when overused, they hinder performance. Coaching people to learn to work with derailers and manage stress can be a gateway into new understanding and help them increase their effectiveness.

The Stress-performance Relationship

The relationship between stress and performance level can be summarized by the bell-shaped stress-performance curve, also referred to as Yerkes-Dodson law (figure 1).

Stress_Perf_Curve

At very low levels of stress, a person may feel lethargic and not very motivated. This is a zone of too little stress. As a person climbs the stress-performance curve, the amount of stress increases, and the level of productivity also climbs. This is a zone where the level of stress may be motivating and energizing. A positive relationship exists between the level of challenge and the positive reward cycle of getting things done, accomplishing things, concentration, and feedback. One may experience in this zone even a state of optimal experience or what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow.1

However, as the amount of stress continues to rise, performance level ultimately peaks and then begins to decrease. When a person enters a zone of too much stress, his or her performance can be characterized by reduced capacity and narrowed judgment and behavioral resources. A person in this zone tends to rely on habitual patterns and go-to behaviors with limited attunement to circumstances and to others. As stress continues to increase, a person will increasingly enter a state of overwhelm and the range of resources contract to fight, flight, or freeze responses in order to address and minimize perceived danger.

The Hogan Development Survey (HDS)

Helping people understand where they are on the stress-performance curve is a starting point for helping them manage their derailing behavioral tendencies and their reputations under conditions of stress.

The Hogan Development Survey (HDS) captures common patterns of behavior and coping mechanisms that emerge under stress and pressure. Each behavioral pattern, or HDS dimension, has an adaptive and functional feature. Each also has a maladaptive quality, which is typically an exaggerated response or an automatic, inflexible response to situations. The top of the stress-performance curve is a place where these behaviors become more prominent and tend to dominate responses. As an important note, HDS behaviors can also be present when someone is relaxed (i.e., not self-managing), and some people might even have HDS traits present most of the time. The focus for this article, however, is on behavioral responses triggered by stress.

What happens for a person at the top of the stress-performance curve has a significant impact on that person’s ability to lead and collaborate. This is because each HDS tendency has a way of hindering the ability to “get along” with others and maintain effective interpersonal relationships. This is a zone that is important for awareness, and it can be a gateway into greater versatility and effectiveness.

Behavioral Modification

Many people talk about behavioral modification, yet behavior does not change because someone wants it to. In other words, it isn’t a matter of will. Behavioral modification comes from shifting patterns and responses to habitual stimuli. This involves a change in perceptions and a change in the internal responses that drive behavior. It is only the latter can be observed by others.

Working with the Hogan Development Survey (HDS) in combination with coaching techniques of self-observations and practices can be powerful methods for growing self-awareness. This makes it possible to shift into more effective responses and behaviors under pressure.

The Role of Coaching

I am trained in Integral Coaching, an approach that uses self-observation and practices for developing ways of responding to situations and developing more versatile ways of being in the world.

To describe these two techniques,

  • self-observations involve a semistructured process for taking time to observe oneself and reflecting on what behaviors arise in particular situations, and
  • practices are repetitive and intentional actions aimed at building a new ability.

Self-observations are effective in discovering unconscious behavioral patterns and habitual responses. Practices allow a person to introduce and build familiarity with a new behavior.

HDS behaviors can be challenging to work with, in large part because most stress responses lie below the level of conscious awareness. The power of self-observation and practices is that, once we can see how we are disposed to respond, we have the opportunity to introduce alternatives.

Working with Stress and Derailer Tendencies in Coaching

In working with a client, I may introduce the stress-performance curve and ask the person to mark an X on the part of the curve that matches his or her stress level. I may have the person take this diagram into the workday and stop multiple times a day (e.g., three times a day) for a fixed period of time (e.g., two weeks) to mark the stress-performance curve. The exercise gets a person to stop and notice their regulation state. It also creates familiarity with the concept of the curve. Through this activity, people are usually able to start to see where their energy and stress levels are during the day and bring this into discussion. This can help determine which behaviors a client may want to focus on based on their actual experiences.

Once someone can notice their state, then they have the possibility to look more closely at stress-based patterns. Here is where I may introduce a self-observation. I may ask the person to observe themselves in a specific stress behavior-inducing situation. I ask them to take notes afterwards on three areas: the context (i.e., who was there and the kind of event), their perceptions (i.e., their thoughts, interpretation, and emotions), and the kinds of actions that the situations provoked them to want to take. These reflections are often insightful to the client and increases their awareness about internal perceptions, habitual responses, and contextual triggers.

This process of self-observation creates a space to possibly introduce a new behavioral practice. A coach can help design a customized practice for a person and gauge readiness.

Practices may include the following:

  • A productive alternative and a new behavior to use more frequently (“do more of”)
  • A repair behavior (to mitigate impacts of habitual patterns)
  • A stress management practice to re-regulate and move down the stress-performance curve (to recharge and minimize spending time in the too-much-stress zone)

As an example, a leader with a high Bold tendency, who is known for not listening to feedback during meetings, may benefit from a self-observation in instances when they are the only person in the room talking. Via a semistructured self-observation, they may look to see if they could self-observe in a real instance. Using the three questions, they can independently reflect on what this observation reveals. Observing first on their own and then discussing this in session may open up new awareness and catalyze greater choice in how to respond (versus react). One example practice which may be fruitful would be to experiment with asking one to three questions, listening, and corroborating prior to sharing a new idea. A component of the practice would be to observe the impact of this new behavior on themselves and others in the real-time behavior practice.

Developing awareness of patterns and stepping into practicing new behaviors is an individualized process. It is supported by curiosity, experimentation, and nonjudgment. New patterns require multiple forms of feedback to develop. The attention of a focused coach and a big dose of curiosity can allow a person to work with derailers and have significant payoffs.

Summary

Managing one’s derailers means growing a capacity to observe oneself, respond differently, and develop practices that are more productive. Growing this capability will increase a person’s effectiveness and their ability to work with others under pressure.

While behavioral change takes attention, self-reflection, and ongoing practice, it is something people can take with them into their lives outside of work, and derailer behaviors are a powerful area to target. The HDS in combination with coaching can help to build this capacity and improve performance.

Reference

  1. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial: New York.