Tina is about to celebrate her tenth birthday with her family and friends at her house in Limassol, a coastal city in the southeast Mediterranean. Despite living near the sea, she hasn’t yet learned how to swim. Her uncle Lakis, an avid year-round swimmer and a seasoned diver, gifts her a swimming book to ignite her interest in the activity.
The book playfully and colorfully describes various swimming styles – freestyle, backstroke, butterfly, and breaststroke. It also illustrates breathing techniques and muscle group movements for each stroke.
Clearly, no one – not even Uncle Lakis – believes Tina will learn to swim just by reading the book, no matter how thoroughly she understands it.
Tina needs to take a leap of faith, dive into a swimming pool or the sea, and discover how to stay afloat. Without the challenge of the actual dive, her learning remains incomplete.
The Link Between Challenge and Engagement
For employees to remain committed, immersed in their work, and engaged, leaders and managers should ensure a balance between challenges and skills, slightly tilting towards challenge.
Negativity Bias and Loss Aversion:
An optimum challenge effectively taps onto our negativity bias, a biological tendency to perceive threats where there are none. This leads to a reflexive mobilization to avoid these perceived threats, which is often stronger than the motivation to seize opportunities or gains. This is closely linked to loss aversion, where the fear of losing is more powerful than the excitement of gaining.
Understanding these psychological aspects is key in striking the right balance between challenge and skill.
Example of Excessive Challenge:
Alex, an entry-level graphic designer, is suddenly tasked with leading a major project with tight deadlines. Overwhelmed by the high level of responsibility and short timeframe, Alex experiences stress and anxiety, leading to decreased performance and disengagement due to the challenge being disproportionately high compared to his current skill level.
Example of Insufficient Challenge:
John, a seasoned lawyer with years of experience, finds himself repeatedly handling routine legal documentation with little variation or complexity. The lack of challenging work leads to boredom and a sense of stagnation, as his skills far exceed the demands of his tasks, resulting in decreased motivation and engagement.
Example of Optimal Challenge-Skill Balance:
Maria, a software engineer, is tasked with developing a new feature for a critical project. The task is challenging but aligns well with her current skill set. The complexity of the task and the high expectation for quality push her to the edge of her abilities without overwhelming her. This balance between challenge and skill leads to heightened engagement, innovation, and a sense of professional growth.
Pursuing a balanced mix of challenge and skills, with a slight emphasis on challenge, is a key strategy to counter entropy and anxiety and maintain engagement at work and in life.
Our fear of failure and negativity bias, often viewed negatively, can actually be powerful motivators for growth and success when leveraged appropriately.
How about you?
Do you feel optimally challenged in life and at work?
Do you find yourself engaged and entangled in meaningful projects and goals?
Or do you guiltily rejoice in the allure of inertia and comfort?
Feel free to share your comments below.
With my best regards,
PS: For a more extensive discussion on the interplay between learning and experience, and the benefits of optimal challenges, please refer to the 2nd Edition of my book “The MARVEL of Happiness: Principles, Stories, and Lessons for Living Fully,” featured in Gold Magazine’s Top 10 Books to Read list.