A Dark Side to Stretch Assignments

Reading a couple research articles got me thinking deeper about something Paul Yost wrote last year. He described a stretch assignment as when you are excited and scared at the very same time.storm

The two articles (see references below) take a serious look at the dark side of stretch assignments. Both articles were published in 2014 in top peer-reviewed journals in our field by entirely different research teams. Both made use of an instrument I had a hand in developing, the Job Challenge Profile (potential blogger bias alert!). They both grounded their research in transactional stress theory—a theory I had become a fan of when I first read Lazarus and Folkman’s book Stress, Appraisal, and Coping back in 1985.

At that time, I was focused on how job challenges (like influencing without authority or starting something new) stimulated on-the-job learning, but I was also interested in the manager’s affective reactions to these challenges. I was well aware that managers experience both positive and negative emotions as they encounter these challenges. Somewhere along the way, this part of the equation drifted into the background of my work. These studies brought back into focus the negative emotions that stretch assignments can generate.

Here are the overall findings from the two studies:

  • In a sample of early-career managers, Yuntao Dong, Myeong-Gu Seo, and Kathryn Bartol found that experiencing development job challenges can increase managers’ pleasant feelings (e.g., excitement, enthusiasm, and satisfaction) which, in turn, increase their advancement potential and decrease their intent to leave their current job. These same job challenges can simultaneously increase negative feelings (e.g., anger, nervousness, and disappointment) which, in turn, decrease advancement potential.  But there’s another twist: job challenges were related to increased turnover intentions only for those low on emotional intelligence (i.e., the ability to detect, respond to, and manage emotions). The researchers argue that emotional intelligence can prevent managers’ unpleasant feelings from developing into intentions to leave their job.
  • In a sample of junior and mid-level managers, Stephen Courtright, Amy Colbert, and Daejeong Choi found that experiencing developmental job challenges was associated with higher work engagement which, in turn, was associated with higher levels of transformational leadership behaviors.  However, experiencing developmental job challenges was also associated with higher emotional exhaustion which, in turn, was associated with high levels of laissez-faire leadership behaviors.  The extra twist in this study: this indirect relationship between job challenges and laissez-faire leadership behaviors held only for those managers with low leadership self-efficacy (i.e., the managers’ perception of their ability to effectively perform the functions of a leadership role).

There’s a lot in these studies; for now, here are some of my take-aways:

Stretch assignments can produce the very opposite of what proponents of them intend. It is useful to be reminded that the same job experiences that can stimulate on-the-job learning can contribute to a wide range of other outcomes. Increasing employee engagement and keeping talented people in the organization are often cited as reasons (in addition to development) for giving stretch assignments. Yet we shouldn’t ignore the potential negative stress and exhaustion that can lead to inaction and avoidance of leadership responsibilities, doubts from others about one’s potential, and turnover.

The negative consequences of stretch assignment can be moderated. The studies cited point to two important tools that managers can make use of in the midst of a stretch assignment to lessen negative outcomes: emotional regulation and self-efficacy. Certainly, organizations can look for these qualities in individuals when selecting people for stretch assignments. They can also make it easier to enact these qualities during stretch assignments by making their salience more apparent and providing the social support that strengthens them.

The mix of excited and scared matters. I’m stimulated to pay more attention to that experience of being excited and scared at the same time when facing a challenge.  What’s the ideal balance of these positive and negative feelings? For me, I’m thinking 75% excited and 25% scared. What do you think?

Dong, Y., Seo, M., Bartol, K.M. (2014). No pain, no gain: An affect-based model of developmental job experience and the buffering effects of emotional intelligence.  Academy of Management Journal, 57, 1056-1077.

Courtright, S.H., Colbert, A.E., & Choi, D. (2014). Fired up or burned out? How developmental challenge differentially impacts leader behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99, 681-696.

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