My wife, Jane, runs an after-school development centre for children. Occasionally, I help out at the centre on a Friday afternoon. After a recent session, Jane was troubled by the fact that one of the children had burst into tears when trying to attempt some new and difficult maths work. This is understandable since no one likes to see children in tears. However, it did prompt me to reflect on which is the worst talent development sin; stress or boredom?

Occasionally at the centre I also see children who are bored (to tears?) by doing work that is too easy for them and keeps them safely in their comfort zone. However, Jane and I do not notice this as quickly or respond to it as strongly as those who become stressed. We are more likely to think that boring the children is a more forgivable sin than stressing them but is this true? Is it supported by the facts? What’s more do we as coaches and leaders transfer this implicit belief into our daily work when we are maximising talent development in the workplace? We don’t expect to drive our clients or our staff to tears but maybe we are quite happy to drive them to boredom.

At this point, it is worth reminding ourselves of the Yerkes-Dodson curve that we feature in the ‘T’ tension component of our FACTS coaching model :-

challenging coaching tension graph

This curve, first empirically validated in 1908, suggests that talent development is maximised at the point where individuals are neither too bored nor too stressed. The symmetrical nature of the curve implies that stress and boredom are equal talent development sins with both being equally damaging to individual performance. So why do we tend to tolerate boring others more than we tolerate challenging them too hard?

One explanation of this anomaly is that our culture conditions us to blame ourselves when we over-stress someone yet to blame others when they are too bored. Once again, children give us a clue to this truth. How often have you heard children say ‘You’re making me cry’ and so guilt-tripping the parent into taking responsibility for their feeling of stress. Yet it is far less common to hear a child saying ‘You’re making me feel bored’.  It is far more likely that they will say ‘I’m bored’ and the parent will conclude that this is a problem of the child’s own state of mind rather than something they, the parent, should feel responsible for.

Translating this into the workplace, there are times when I feel like there is an epidemic of boredom in our corporate offices; legions of talented people who feel trapped and whose eyes glaze over as they trip from one game-playing meeting to the next. And then I might over-hear a manager casually remarking that ‘not everyone wants to progress or develop themselves, some people are just happy as they are’. Is this really true? Or is it a convenient way of letting ourselves off the hook from rousing inherently talented people from their torpor by challenging them in a firm yet respectful way? I believe Mr.Yerkes and Mr.Dodson got it right. Boredom and stress are equal talent development sins and it is time we woke up and faced the FACTS of this hidden reality. As Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher, concluded ‘Perhaps the world’s second worst crime is boredom. The first is being a bore.’

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