You know the feeling. A work deadline looms, but you’ve left it to the last minute and now the boss is asking, in no uncertain terms, when will it be delivered?

Heart rate and stress levels rise. There’s nothing like the prospect of failure to concentrate the mind. In the end you get the job done. But was the angst worth it?

According to Amirali Minbashian, from the School of Management at UNSW Business School, not only was it worthwhile, it may have even produced a better result.

The expert in organisational behaviour has been examining “state neuroticism”, the trait that describes performance and emotions experienced in the heat of the moment.

He’s found that, contrary to popular opinion, a certain level of this neuroticism in the workplace is not a negative thing.

For their research, Minbashian and his colleagues measured the stress levels of mid-tier managers before they completed a task.

On a scale of zero to 100, where zero is no stress and 100 is maximum stress, the managers performed best somewhere between the levels of 20 and 30.


The findings are outlined in “In the Heat of the Moment: On the Effect of State Neuroticism on Task Performance”, a paper Minbashian co-authored with Nadin Beckmann, Jens Beckmann and Damian Birney.

The results seem to contradict other recent studies of performance in the workplace that have connected higher levels of individual neuroticism with lower performance levels.

But these studies were looking at a measure of personality called “trait” neuroticism, Minbashian says.

“Some individuals tend to experience higher anxiety than others. The implication has been that if you’re going to select people for a work environment, there is a relationship that suggests the lower the person is on the neuroticism scale, the better they will perform.”

But this doesn’t mean that a completely stress-free workplace encourages high performance.

“Having a little bit of neuroticism in the workplace as a whole is actually going to be better for performance than trying to ensure staff are always calm. It can motivate,” Minbashian says.

Minbashian uses the “snake in the room” as an example. If a large reptile slithers in, you’re likely to feel a bit anxious, and this is good. Without a certain level of anxiety, you won’t try to protect yourself.

However, the trick is not to overdo it. Extreme stress can paralyse. It can lead to sleeplessness, obesity and heart disease, and can lead to low morale, high employee turnover and poor business performance.

Minbashian says understanding what works in individual workplaces comes down to knowing yourself and your workers. Project deadlines, the potential to be judged (such as when making a presentation), the prospect of losing face (if a deal you’re expected to bring in heads south), or an increase in pressure, such as having to present to the board, are all examples of stress that can lead to higher performance.

Without the external goal posts or the challenge of the task, there would most likely be no nerves at all, Minbashian says.

And that’s when we find ourselves cruising.

Which sounds well and good. Until the boss walks back in the room.

A longer version of this story first appeared in the UNSW Business School’s BusinessThink.