Yerkes-Dodson Law: Understanding Employee Motivation, Performance, and Fulfillment

There is a prevailing myth that people like easy work. While the occasional straightforward task is a nice relief, us humans give our best effort when we face a formidable challenge. When the bar is low, we’re not motivated to reach high.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the workaholics. The people who believe they have an extra gear and can do more than everyone else. However, the idea that someone thrives under stress is a fallacy as well. We lose focus, cut corners, and get burned out when we try to meet excessive expectations.

As with most things in life, moderation is key. Optimal motivation and performance occur when we feel just-the-right-amount of pressure. And we enjoy a sense of fulfillment after we push ourselves to do something difficult. This is a psychological principle known as Yerkes-Dodson Law or the Inverted U-Theory.

What is Yerkes-Dodson Law?

In 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson set out to learn if electric shock would motivate rats to complete a maze. What they discovered became the basis for their namesake psychological law. A mild shock did indeed initiate the rats to complete the maze. However, an extreme jolt caused them to panic while a small shock didn’t stimulate them to enter the maze.

The duo published their findings in the Journal of Comparative Neurology and theorized what it meant for human motivation. As pressure increases so does motivation and performance. However, once pressure crosses a certain threshold, the typical person starts to experience stress and anxiety which results in diminished performance.

Yerkes-Dodson Law is easy to understand when you envision the pressure-motivation relationship on a bell curve. Performance increases with pressure before dropping off after hitting the top of the arch. Goals, whether they be personal or professional, should always be ambitious yet realistically achievable.

The relationship between pressure, motivation, and performance

Now let’s think about Yerkes-Dodson Law in the context of the workplace. Regularly assigning an employee easily accomplishable tasks is a poor use of their talents in more ways than one. First and foremost, you want them to produce impactful work. But even more, simple work isn’t exciting. It doesn’t fire an employee up to give their best effort. Doing relatively meaningless work leads to a lackadaisical approach and results.

However, an employee will roll up their sleeves and dive in when the pressure is dialed up. It leads to a “flow state,” where they focus on the task at hand and work at full capacity. You can probably remember a time when you got so into what you were working on that you looked up at the clock, surprised to see how much time had gone by.

You can probably also recall a job that was too stressful. Instead of feeling excited to take on challenging work, you likely felt overwhelmed by everything and worried about falling behind. Motivation born out of panic leads to an employee delivering less-than-stellar work, simply because they’re trying to keep up.

Yerkes-Dodson Law and personal fulfillment

We’ve established that the right amount of pressure sparks motivation, which results in optimal performance. Now let’s explore the final puzzle piece: personal fulfillment for the employee.

Many people fantasize about having an easy job but would they really be happy? The typical workweek is 40+ hours and no one wants to sit around with nothing to do. But even more than that, an overly-simple job can make an employee feel like they don’t offer much value to the organization and need to pretend they work harder than they actually do.

That’s not to say that a stressful job leads to fulfillment either. Remember, an employee with too much on their plate misses details and falls behind. Striving to do their best but delivering mediocre results often causes them to feel guilty and helpless. They can grow to resent their work situation, knowing they do everything they can but it’s never good enough.

We achieve professional fulfillment when we’re proud of the work we do. When we know without a doubt that we’re getting better at our craft every day because we’re successfully accomplishing new challenges.

Help employees achieve maximum motivation, performance, and fulfillment

It’s easy to read about Yerkes-Dodson Law and want to challenge employees to exactly the right extent. But the reality is everyone has workdays that are easier or harder than others. That said, the following tips will help you motivate your employees, unlock their full potential, and leave them feeling good about what they achieve:

  • Set long-term, ambitious goals — Employees should know what they’re expected to work toward and feel they need to give their best effort to hit their targets.
  • Monitor progressKeep track of the incremental progress employees make toward their long-term goals so they stay focused and motivated.
  • Adjust goals as needed — Fine-tune an employee’s goals if they fall behind or get ahead of schedule so their performance doesn’t suffer.
  • Regularly discuss progress with employees — Employees should meet with their manager frequently to discuss what they’re working on and how they’re feeling.
  • Celebrate employee wins — Always recognize the culmination of an employee’s hard work so they keep striving to do great things on behalf of your organization.

Every organization wants employees to produce valuable work and every professional wants to feel good about their performance. Keep Yerkes-Dodson Law in mind as you lead your team and you’ll have a high-performing staff of happy people.