When Stressing Out Employees is a Good Thing

I was nervous but trying not to show it. Once the previous watch officer left, it suddenly hit me. I was in charge of an operating nuclear power plant at sea. The entire crew was depending on me. I was standing my first watch, and the weight of that responsibility suddenly felt crushing.

I had completed my qualifications after months of study, observation, and supervision. I was now ready to fly solo. The responsibility of the USS Tennessee’s nuclear reactor, engine room, and everyone in it was mine for the next six hours.

As the watch went on, I started to get more comfortable. The nervousness I felt when I first took over the watch subsided, and I slipped into the routine of operating one of the most advanced engine rooms in the world.

I had stood so many “under-instruction” watches that I was familiar with all the usual activities. As I quietly performed the job I had trained so hard for, I thought, this isn’t so bad. I’ve got this.

About four hours into the watch, everything changed. It started with an all-hands announcement on the ship’s PA system.

“This is the captain,” he said. “I just want to let everyone know that Ensign Rennie has qualified as the newest ‘Engineering Officer of the Watch.’ He has worked very hard and has earned the right to stand watch at this important duty station. Please join me in congratulating him. And, Mr. Rennie, keep my plant safe!”

As soon as he finished the announcement, all hell broke loose.

It was a reactor scram.

A scram is the sudden shutdown of the nuclear reactor by a rapid insertion of the control rods. For some reason, all the control rods on the Tennessee’s reactor just dropped, and every alarm in maneuvering went off simultaneously. It was absolute chaos.

I silenced the alarms and picked up the microphone to start giving orders to the engine room personnel. I was about to give my first command when someone came to the door and snapped a picture of me.

This was all a setup, I thought.

The captain wanted to see how I would handle a casualty on my first watch, so he had given the command to scram the reactor. He also wanted to see my reaction to his unannounced drill, so he sent the ship’s photographer with a Polaroid to capture the moment.

I recovered the plant in short order, and the rest of my watch was uneventful, but I kept thinking about that reactor scram drill. It was a typical move by our captain.

He was tough on sailors and even tougher on his officers. The scram was both a test and a message. He wanted to see how I handled myself, but he also wanted to remind me never to get too comfortable. He constantly put us in situations outside our comfort zone to allow us to learn and grow. He also wanted to observe our progress.

I was thinking about this the other day while listening to the Joe Rogan Experience podcast.

Joe was talking about the legendary owner of The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, Mitzi Shore. Mitzi was a brazen and outspoken leader. She was especially tough on young comedians and pushed them to be their absolute best. She often put junior comics in challenging situations to see how they performed.

Famous comedians like Rogan, Jim Carrey, and Ari Shaffir credit their success to these experiences and the raw, no-nonsense criticism they received from Mitzi. In a way, Mitzi and my captain had a lot in common; they both knew that people needed to be stressed and stretched to become the best versions of themselves.

People need to be stressed and stretched to become the best versions of themselves. Click To Tweet

Leadership is not just about getting the job done; it’s also about helping employees grow and achieve their full potential. Support and encouragement are essential to help employees develop. But to reach high levels of performance, employees have to be challenged and placed in uncomfortable situations.

To reach high levels of performance, employees have to be challenged and placed in uncomfortable situations. Click To Tweet

If you think of a house plant, it will grow up to a point with just sunlight and water. Eventually, though, the plant will become root-bound. The size of the pot will ultimately limit its growth. To allow the plant to grow further, you have to repot the plant into a larger container. This allows roots to have the necessary room to expand. Repotting is the only way the plant can continue to grow.

However, repotting will create stress for the plant resulting in yellow leaves and wilted stems. Care must be taken, like pruning and feeding, to ensure the plant remains healthy during this stressful event.

In the Navy, my captain understood that I would only grow so much through support and encouragement. For me to reach my full potential, I needed to be stressed. I needed to be put in uncomfortable situations to learn and discover my full capabilities. He also knew I needed to be carefully observed and supported during this process as I transitioned to the next level.

So, is stressing out your employees is a good thing? Absolutely, If you want them to grow to their full potential. But, employees need to be carefully observed and supported during this process.

If you’re interested in learning more about how submarine captains “pressure-test” their crews, pick up a copy of my latest leadership book. It’s called All in the Same Boat: Lead Your Organization Like a Nuclear Submariner, and chapter 7 is all about how to run your ship like a submarine captain.





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