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The art of stretching employees

By Stefan Stern
February 26, 2008 08:55 IST
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"What, me worry?", asked the cheerfully gap-toothed and freckle-faced Alfred E. Neumann from the front cover of Mad magazine all through my youth. I wonder how long his outlook would last if he spent any time reading today's newspapers.

Last week, for example, my colleague Martin Wolf took us through Professor Nouriel Roubini's "12 steps to financial ruin" scenario, a scarily plausible account of how the world could be facing a deep US recession soon. By step eight I had to take a time-out and head to the canteen for a doughnut. What, me worry? You betcha.

On returning home later that same day I finally opened a threateningly bulky package that had been sitting by the front door for a few days and, guess what? Panic-relief was at hand.

The padded envelope contained a book called Just Enough Anxiety, which, its sub-heading informed me, is "the hidden driver of business success". The cover of the book shows a rubber band being stretched - not too much of course - by a mystery pair of hands. The not terribly subtle point being made by the use of this image is that people (and organisations) are a bit like rubber bands: we have to be stretched to perform a useful function, but stretch us too far and we will snap.

The book has been written by Robert Rosen, a psychologist and consultant. His thesis is pretty radical. Although we have evolved to recognise danger and decide whether to choose "fight or flight", Dr Rosen says, the modern world requires us to rethink our response to danger and risk. Where in the past incremental adjustments got us through times of difficulty, that will no longer do. "The rate of change is outpacing our ability to reinvent ourselves," he writes. So we need "to make new choices about how we handle change".

But while Intel's Andy Grove said that "only the paranoid survive". Dr Rosen has moved on. Only those with "just enough anxiety" survive, he says. With great confidence - no signs of anxiety here - Dr Rosen declares: "It's time to embrace change, uncertainty and anxiety as facts of life . . . we can use our healthy anxiety as a positive force for growth."

What evidence does he offer? Todd Stitzer, chief executive of Cadbury Schweppes, is a believer in the usefulness of just enough anxiety. "I'm an accomplishment junkie," he tells the author. "I love to challenge myself beyond my comfort level."

But getting the balance right is not easy. "It's a constant challenge to modulate and manage your anxiety," he says. "To not let your anxiety overwhelm you or get transmitted to others in a negative way. That's why I exercise four or five times a week and have a wife as my partner whom I confide in and who supports me no matter how insane I get." Mr Stitzer says that, by stretching his company around the time of the $4.2bn acquisition of the US confectionery business Adams in 2003, he got better results from the acquisition, quicker. But generating anxiety was not about telling people what to do. It was about challenging and questioning them. "It's about using constructive impatience to increase buy-in and commitment," he says.

Clearly there are limits to Mr Stitzer's impatience and desire to transmit anxiety. After the success of Cadbury's drumming gorilla advertisement last year, the company dished out hundreds of chocolate drumsticks to staff. "[The ad] had a huge impact on people in the company, bucking people up, helping them have a bit more fun. That's worth a lot," the CEO said last week. It is reassuring to see that Cadbury's still believes in the restorative powers of that popular stress-relief product: chocolate.

I am a little anxious about this concept of anxiety. How do you know when you have "enough" of the stuff? Does "enough" vary according to the different sectors you are in: loads is needed in finance, but less in mining and extraction? And Dr Rosen is seeking to overturn millennia of evolutionary development. As he concedes, biologists believe humans consciously seek order and stability. Security equals success. It is called "the comfort zone" for a reason. It is comfortable. The clue is in the name.

But perhaps stability is a dangerous objective for individuals, as well as for businesses and organisations. It is a short step from comfort to complacency. On the other hand, just enough anxiety could easily tip over into fear and panic. Oh dear. Now I am getting worried.

Mark Gottfredson, a Bain consultant, warns against the "illusion" of stability. In his new book, Breakthrough Imperative, co-authored with fellow Bain partner Steve Shaubert, he argues that, because markets and customers are always changing, and because prices and costs will always tend to fall, not being anxious to improve is deadly.

In 2008, the danger facing most of us is having too much rather than too little anxiety. But leaders must avoid spreading panic among their people, making everyone feel helpless and incompetent. It bothers me to say so, but Dr Rosen's prescription may be broadly correct. The Goldilocks economy is a thing of the past. But Goldilocks managers will succeed by having not too much anxiety, nor too little, but just the right amount.

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