Inverted U theory

Inverted U theory shows relationship between stress and performance

In this article, we’ll be taking a look at the inverted U theory or Yerkes-Dodson Law as it’s otherwise known. We’ll aim to provide:

  •  An understanding of the model, 
  • How it explains the subtle relationship between performance and pressure/motivation
  • The inverted U chart
  • How you can utilize this in a business context.
  • What issues exist when using the model

Introduction to Inverted U theory

Some of my most enjoyable times at work have been where we are chasing a deadline or trying to remedy a complex problem to appease a customer. These tend to be pressurized situations where you and the team feel up against it, and succeeding is not a given. 

Often these tasks are coupled with a tight deadline, maybe the goal, at first glance, looks unachievable or there could be new skills to learn to get the job done all of these add to the pressure felt by those undertaking the task.

Often, due to these odds (which can seem impossible), the team rallies together and delivers excellent results in spite of the perceived difficulties.

But why is that?

I always relish these situations over a more typical mundane day to day work life. I find moderate stress such as a tight deadline or other similar challenge keeps me motivated and helps me deliver.  

I was at a sporting event the other week, and in chatting to one of the coaches, I was surprised to learn that there is a model that demonstrates this relationship between stress and performance.

Its official name is the inverted U theory (otherwise called the Yerkes-Dodson Law).

The Inverted U theory demonstrates how a little stress mixed with competition can have a positive effect on performance.  

Why is this? In my example, perhaps it’s so that I can prove the deadline wrong, and beat the odds? Maybe it’s because I want to show my boss or others around me that I’m a worthy addition to the team.

Yerkes/Dodson Inverted U

This relationship between stress and performance was initially detailed in the article by Robert Yerkes and John Dodson (you can read the original here “The Relation of Strength of Stimulus to Rapidity of Habitā€Formation“)

In a sporting context, this shows the relationship where athletes arousal/stress has a specific relationship to performance.

Inverted U chart

Yerkes/Dodson’s theory can be visually described, utilizing the following chart.  

In this model, we chart the relationship between performance and pressure. Yerkes/Dodson argued that an inverted U shape typified the relationship.

You can see from the chart that we utilize it to map pressure and performance. As we start with low-pressure, performance is low. As pressure increases, there is a correlating increase in performance.

However, this is not unlimited and performance plateaus. The performance then deteriorates as further pressure is added. As more pressure is placed on the individual performance decreases. The resultant relationship forms the inverted “U” shape demonstrated on the chart.

In summary:

1/ Low performance is associated with low arousal/stress

2/ Peak performance related to moderate arousal/stress

3/ There is a threshold on arousal/stress and passing that drives a detrimental effect on performance.

So based on the above model and to attain peak performance, precisely the right motivation is required. Of course, the term “sufficient motivation” is highly subjective, but Yerkes/Dodson argued that the relationship is there, even if subtle.

Of course, this model is simplistic, and there are arguments that state the model fails to integrate the other myriad of influences on performance.

But what else impacts performance, consider:

  • Everyone performs at varying levels and deals with stress differently 
  • Teams, which may have various personalities and skill levels contained within it, may react differently to individuals.
  • Knowledge/skills within the team that helps undertake the task (especially new entrants vs. experienced individuals) can have an impact
  • Arousal/stress has a different effect depending on the complexity of the task.

While this model originates within a sports context, it can be utilized in business.

Inverted U in business

In a business context, the questions we must ask ourselves are: 

a) How do you best apply the model to drive the required results

b) How do you calculate what levels of stress/motivation are needed (and acceptable?).

In the introduction to this article, I stated that I find that when I’m under pressure (particularly in a team environment), I do my best work.

When I’m not under pressure (either by timescale or goal), I can find that I’m often distracted by tasks that might be more interesting.

Let’s look at an example.

When faced with carrying out routine admin vs. brainstorming a project strategy that has to be completed by a tight deadline how does an individual or team react? The latter task is likely to get the best out of me for sure, but what does this say? Perhaps we need to consider

  • The deadline
  • The task complexity
  • Does the individual need to learn something new to conduct the task
  • The emotional tie that the individual has with the task

To drive performance, the workforce needs motivation. Motivation is more than a few posters with catchy phrases. The inverted U theory demonstrates that appropriate levels of stress can drive increased output.

The model shows that unto a point, stress can be a positive influence. “Up to a point” is the crucial thing. It’s also important to realize the negative impact that stress can have. Organizations need their processes optimized if they are to get the best out of this relationship.

How many times have you seen/heard of management heavily pressurizing their staff because they believe it delivers results? They fail to consider that going over the top has a detrimental impact.

It’s also essential that business realize that other factors drive performance. Forbes recently published this excellent piece that describes 3 factors:

  • Autonomy/Choice – employees have a sense of control and choice within what work they do and how
  • Connection to the task – Being connected personally to the goal and it’s benefits
  • Competence in the task

What this demonstrates is that the inverted U theory cannot be used in isolation but is merely an element that needs to be considered.

When stress becomes a bad thing.

As the theory demonstrates, too much stress has a detrimental effect on performance. Within a business context, this means that businesses need to determine a standard by which to hold itself to account – when does stress become too much?

After all, It’s all too easy to consider that the only pressure being applied to an individual is within their work-life. All too often managers exclude the likely personal pressure individuals could be under from home or other elements of their lives.

Within our work life, we also shouldn’t ignore the complexity of the task. Where the duties are highly complex, and the situation is highly stressed, performance can suffer (as shown by the right-hand side of the inverted U.

How to use the inverted U theory in business?

Given the above, we’ve come up with the following steps:

  • Consider the output required
  • Consider existing pressure on the individual/team
  • Set appropriate
    • Timescales
    • Status reporting
    • KPI’s
    • Reviews
    • Monitor and consider how you capture degrading performance

Consider how other contributory factors influence performance and don’t just rely on stress to get results.


In this article, we’ve covered the Inverted U theory and have seen how it describes the relationship between pressure and performance. 

It could be argued that the model provides a crude representation and ignores other attributes; it does give an insight into influences on performance.

Businesses usually look to optimize performance and so the theory offers an insight into how optimum performance level can be obtained.

Getting great performance is a complex balance including many influences such as the individual/team, task, deadline, and the role of a manager is to use these in such a way that the team produces it’s best work.

We hope you enjoyed this article, do you utilize the inverted u theory at work? Have some feedback? Feel free to use the comments section below or message us via twitter.

This post is part of our Management & Leadership guide. In it you’ll find management tools, techniques and templates.