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When Stretch Assignments Backfire

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May 11, 2015
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Bartol & SeoCongratulations, you just got a stretch assignment! This means your boss trusts you and sees leadership potential. But beware. New research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business shows potential pitfalls. The same assignment that can inspire engagement and critical thinking also can trigger self-doubt and anxiety.

Some people cope well with the mixture of feelings, but others stay awake at night planning their escape to a less threatening environment. Given that organizations use stretch assignments to develop advancement potential, chasing people away is perhaps the least intended outcome.

“It’s a mixed bag,” says co-author Kathryn M. Bartol, co-director of the Smith School’s Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change (CLIC). “On the one hand you’re excited about the challenge that’s involved, but you also perceive the threats.”

Turning high-potential leaders toward the C-suite rather than the exit during these developmental job experiences can hinge on individual levels of emotional intelligence. The research suggests that this important characteristic — the ability to monitor and adjust to emotions in oneself and others — creates a buffering effect that helps people cope with the trauma in constructive ways.

Besides Bartol, co-authors include Smith associate professor Myeong-Gu Seo and Smith PhD alumna Yuntao Dong, assistant professor at the University of Connecticut. The paper, published in the peer-reviewed Academy of Management Journal, is based on a sample of 214 early-career managers and their supervisors.

“People have thought that stretch assignments are good for employees, no matter what,” Seo says. “But our research suggests that these assignments magnify your affective reaction in both ways — positive and negative.”

Five Tips for Stretched Employees

The research suggests at least five behaviors associated with emotional intelligence that can boost people’s resilience when they accept a stretch assignment.

1. Get support. Professionals learn to bury their feelings at work, but talking about stress and its origins can help people cope. So build a support team. “Such support may directly boost pleasant feelings and decrease unpleasant feelings,” the authors write.

2. Negotiate terms. Push back if an assignment seems too daunting or unrealistic. Ask for necessary resources. Find out if some of your existing duties or projects can be put on hold or reassigned. “Have that conversation on the front side, so you don’t get overwhelmed,” Bartol says.

3. Recognize unproductive attitudes. You are terrified and excited at the same time. This is normal. Emotionally intelligent people acknowledge their contradictory feelings. But they also know that focusing too much on the negative can stifle creativity and lead to withdrawal. “If you feel totally overwhelmed, it’s not going to get you a positive outcome,” Seo says.

4. Flip the narrative. When you catch yourself withdrawing into a protective stance, stop and think more broadly about the potential upsides of your situation. Focus on the opportunities for mastery, personal growth and meaningful contribution. “Flip it from threat to challenge,” Bartol says.

5. Change the situation. Regulating your thinking patterns is not always enough. Emotionally intelligent people know their limits. They anticipate emotional reactions and organize their time to avoid stressful activities coming all at once. “Save the hardest or most unpleasant tasks for good days,” Seo says.

Five Tips for Supportive Bosses

The research also describes ways in which supervisors can help team members succeed and advance.

1. Start small. “Build people up over time,” Bartol says. “Stretch assignments are good, but if the amount of stretch is too much, so that most people are likely to fall on the negative side, then you are going to push turnover.”

2. Appreciate diversity. People come from different backgrounds and have different aptitudes. Consider these factors when framing an assignment or assembling a team. “The job experience is subjective,” Seo says. “The same assignment can be very stressful for some people, but comfortable for other people.”

3. Monitor and adjust. Stay mindful of verbal and nonverbal cues so you know when it’s time to intervene. “As a manager, learn how to detect the negative signals,” Seo says.

4. Be the regulator. When you intervene, provide an infusion of emotional intelligence. “Help your employees to frame the situation better,” Bartol says. “Help them to change the situation.”

5. Give permission to fail. Give your employees room to experiment. “Create a climate that encourages tolerance for errors and risk-taking,” the authors write.

READ MORE

“No Pain, No Gain: An Affect-Based Model of Developmental Job Experience and the Buffering Effects of Emotional Intelligence” appeared in the August 2014 issue of Academy of Management Journal.

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