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Inverted U Theory (or Yerkes-Dodson Law) is a stress management tool that depicts the relationship between performance and pressure.


An application-oriented question on the topic along with responses can be seen below. The best answer was provided by Aritra Das Gupta, Jayanth Sura, Santosh Sharma, Subodh Tripathi and Sanjay Singh.


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Q 337. What is Inverted U Theory? How can a project leader use it to get the best performance from the team?


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Inverted U theory is also known as Yerkes Dosdon Law.
What Is U theory - In our day to day project management often we work on deliverables which has to be met in a very tight timeline however is achievable. The project goal was met because of your unique skills. The project goal might have been difficult to achieve and there was pressure however the same was overcome and the result was amazing.
In contrast there might be a project which might have deadlines which were flexible however there was undue pressure which resulted in the work not as per expectation which led to multiple feedback from management or clients.
U theory states that there is a correlation between pressure and performance.
Who created it and When ? 
This was created by Robert Yerkes and John Dodson in 1908.




The name is given to this theory due to the curve created which helps to understand the correlation between pressure & performance. Optimum performance is achieved when the pressure is appropriate based on the work which is there at hand. Too much or too little pressure can be detrimental to the project goals.
The Left side of the above graph shows where there is less pressure where employees are not challenged to complete the task and thus the employees tries to do a work in a slopy manner.
The right hand side of the graph shows where there is excessive pressure on the employees due to which the performance is affected. This can result in the employee feeling stressed, panicked or hurried and leads to employee dissatisfaction.
The Inverted U theory shows that positive pressure is required however stress is never good and is always negative.
When there is positive pressure then persons feel motivated, challenged and engaged which helps person outperform .Where as excessive pressure leads to people feeling stressed and leads to anxiety. The idea is to use pressure in a rational way so that employees outperform.
The factors which influence of the Inverted U theory :- 

1.Skill Level – Skill level of a person directly affect there performance and effect the result and there attitude.
2. Personality – A persons personality also affects the performance. An extrovert person performs exceptionally when there is high pressure situation. For an introvert he might underperform in a high pressure circumstances.
3.Trait Anxiety -Team member who have high degree of self-confidence they are able  perform exceptionally well as compared to those who have low self-confidence.
4. Task Complexity – Complexity of the work is equally important. A highly complex work should be performed in less pressure whereas for a low complexity work certain amount of pressure is required to complete the task.




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Inverted 'U' theory:- The inverted ' U ' theory speaks about the correlation between an employee's performance Vs pressure on employee. In simple terms this theory say the following.


--> Low or no pressure at work  will leads to low employee's performance.

--> Appropriate pressure at work will optimize the employee's performance.

--> High and intolerable pressure will impact negatively on performance at time the negative impact is very



When the correlation of performance Vs pressure is shown on a graph, the graph will take the shape of inverted U as shown in the figure below, hence the theory is named as "inverted 'U' theory".

Image result for inverted u graph


This theory is also called as " Yerkes - Dodson law" as the same is proposed by two famous psychologists "Robert Yerkes" & " John Dodson".


We can indeed correlate this theory to one of the Lean Six Sigma believes that any Goal should follow the concept of SMART, where the goal should be A - achievable and R - realistic.

A goal with too low in target and very high and unachievable targets will indeed impact employee's performance negatively.


There are many crucial projects for which deadlines are very important. For such projects with tight and achievable deadlines, project leader can use the "Inverted U theory" concept to motivate the team to achieve desired results.

One of the important prerequisite according to this theory is "Skill set of employees", if employees are not adequately skilled, then even realistic targets will burden employees and pressure will turn into stress.


So according to this "inverted U theory", project leaders should ensure the following

1. employees should be skilled

2. targets should be realistic

3. teams should be periodically motivated by various means to ensure pressure won't turn into stress.

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What is Inverted-U Theory?

It is a theory that throws light on the relation between performance and pressure / arousal. In the original study, rats got electric shocks as motivation for escaping from a maze. The Inverted-U Theory owes its name to the line, in form of an inverted U, that appears when there is a correlation between pressure & performance.




A quick look at the curve reveals that performance lags behind when there’s little pressure, and that performance is positively influenced when there’s some more pressure. If even more pressure is added, performance is influenced negatively and efficiency decreases. The worker’s efficiency and performance can reach an optimal point if the pressure or arousal have reached an optimal point.

Inverted-U Theory was developed by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson in 1908. Despite the fact that the model was developed long ago, it continues to be relevant.


Interpreting the Model

When looking at the left-hand side of the graph, it’s notable that low pressure or low stress levels result in a stress response corresponding to ‘boredom or lack of challenge’. Even if the task itself is a critical activity, the attention, concentration, and precision required to properly execute a task is absent in the absence of an appropriate level of pressure or stress.

On the right-hand side of the graph from the Inverted-U Theory, we can see that extreme pressure levels or high stress levels don’t automatically result in good performance. The opposite is true: if pressure gets too high, or a too high stress level is activated, this results in a feeling of unhappiness, stressfulness, and anxiety. These are all results of overwhelming stress.

In the middle of the graph, however, is a region where the worker performs best. This area is where an optimal amount of pressure is applied. In this region, the moderate pressure leads to an optimal stress level, which is manageable as well. Eventually, this results in the highest performance level for the user.


Four Influencing Factors

It can be hard to determine how much impact pressure, and stress have because the desired amount of pressure is influenced by four factors. These factors are also known as influencers. Inverted-U Theory recognises the following four influencers:


Different personality types benefit from different levels of stress or pressure. Generally, extraverted personalities are more resistant to stress and better able to keep their head above water when stressed than introverted personalities. Introverted people usually have a higher chance of performing well in environments with little stress or excitement.

Task Difficulty

The degree of complexity of a task relates to the level of attention and effort a person requires to successfully complete it. People are generally able to carry out simple activities even when pressure is high, but complex tasks are better taken care of in quiet surroundings.


A shop manager and an accountant have completely different jobs. Each has more knowledge of the work they do individually than of the other’s job. If they would swap jobs, the challenge and the pressure would be so high in the beginning that it would strongly motivate them. After a while, when tasks get easier, they would have to use a new form of pressure to keep their performance up.


Inverted-U Theory shows that fear can also have an effect on performance. This mainly relates to the ability to set aside or ignore feelings of fear in order to be able to keep one’s focus on the situation and the tasks. People who are better at this also perform better under pressure. People who are not good at it will enter into challenging situations more often.


Complexity and Motivation

In situations that require carrying out tasks with a high level of complexity, or solving complex problems, motivation plays an important role. There have been various situations in which the relation between motivation and complex problem solving was studied. These have yielded several theories, such as McClelland’s motivation theory and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.


Using the Inverted-U Theory, To get the best performance from the team…

The simplest way to use the Inverted-U Theory is to be aware of it when you allocate tasks and projects  to people on your team, and when you plan your own workload.

Start by thinking about existing pressures. If you're concerned that someone might be at risk of overload, see if you can take some of the pressure off them. This is a simple step to help them improve the quality of their work.

By contrast, if anyone is under-worked, it may be in everyone's interest to shorten some deadlines, increase key targets, or add extra responsibilities – but only with clear communication and agreement.

From there, balance the factors that contribute to pressure, so that your people can perform at their best. Remember, too little pressure can be just as stressful as too much!

Try to provide team members with tasks and projects of an appropriate level of complexity, and work to build confidence in the people who need it.

However, bear in mind that you won't always be able to balance the "influencers." Motivate and empower  your people so that they can make effective decisions for themselves.


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Inverted Theory:


The Inverted-U Theory explains the relation between performance and pressure. It describes how to find the optimal degree of positive pressure at which people perform at their highest, also known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Too much or too little pressure can result in reduced efficiency.

The left side of the graph, above, indicates the condition where individuals are not challenged. They see no need to work hard on a task here, or they are at risk of approaching their job in a careless, unmotivated manner.

The center of the graph illustrates where individuals work at peak productivity. They are driven enough to work hard, but they are not so overloaded that they are beginning to fail. This is where individuals can feel the "flow," the fun and incredibly efficient state in which they can do their best job.

The right hand side of the graph indicates that, under pressure, they begin to fall apart. The intensity and size of competing demands on their attention and a significant lack of control over their situation overwhelm them. They can display signs of hasty illness, anxiety, or out-and-out panic.



Note: The exact shape of the curve, in fact, will depend on both the person and their situation. It is also important to note that obviously minor adjustments can lead to rapid repositioning on the curve in professional or personal life.

Difference between pressure and stress:

The Inverted-U Theory shows that, up to a degree, pressure can be positive. Stress, however, is never optimistic, and it's important not to confuse the two thoughts. We are activated in a beneficial way when the levels of pressure we feel are right for the work we do: inspired, committed, and enthusiastic about doing our best.

But when individuals feel out of control, tension happens, and it's a totally negative thing. The Inverted-U Principle is about wisely using pressure, always mindful of where the advantages end and tension starts.


Four influencers of the inverted u theory:


1. Skill level: The level of skill of someone with a specific task can directly affect their performance, both in terms of their attitude and their outcomes. A new job is likely to be difficult enough for a while. Later, if it begins to feel too convenient, it will require some sort of extra pressure to help the person re-engage with their role.

2. Personality: The personality of a person also determines how well they perform. Some psychologists, for example, assume that people who are extroverts are likely to do well in conditions of high pressure. On the other hand, individuals with an introverted personality may perform better with less pressure. The Inverted-U Theory prompts us to adapt our own personalities to suitable roles, and those of our people. When we assign roles and responsibilities, observation, thorough knowledge of individuals, and open communication are all necessary.

3. Trait Anxiety: Think of trait anxiety as the level of "self-talk" of a person. People who are positive of themselves are more likely to perform better under pressure. This is because they are under control of their self-talk, which ensures that they can remain "in flow," and can focus entirely on the situation at hand. By comparison, individuals who criticize or challenge themselves are likely to be overwhelmed by their self-talk, which in more difficult circumstances can cause them to lose concentration. The more individuals are able to reduce their anxiety about a task (for example, with practice or with positive thinking), the more they can perform.

4. Task Complexity: The difficulty of the task defines the amount of commitment and effort that individuals have to put into a task in order to effectively accomplish it. Under very high levels of pressure, people may perform simple activities, whereas complex activities are best done in a relaxed, low-pressure environment. But even though someone's ability levels are high, they can still benefit from a relaxed atmosphere in which their most complex work can be carried out. Conversely, in order to feel motivated and fulfill their potential, people carrying out low-complexity tasks will need extra stimulation.

The Inverted-U Theory allows these four variables to be observed and controlled, striving for a balance that encourages dedication, well-being, and peak performance. Through controlling these four influencers, and by being mindful of how they can positively or negatively affect the success of your people, you can use the model.


How to use this theory?
When you assign tasks and assignments to individuals in your squad, and when you organize your own workload, the best way to use the Inverted-U Principle is to be conscious of it. Start by focusing on current pressures. If you're worried that someone may be at risk of being overwhelmed, see if they can take away any of the burden. This is an easy step to help them improve their job quality. By comparison, if anyone is underworked, shortening those deadlines, increasing key priorities, or adding additional responsibilities could be in everyone's interest, but only with clear communication and agreement. From there, reconcile the variables that lead to strain, so that your people can work at their best. Don't forget, too little pressure can be as overwhelming as too much! Try to provide tasks and projects of an acceptable degree of complexity to team members, and strive to create trust in the people who need them. Also, in your team, handle any negativity and prepare your people so that they have the abilities they need to do the jobs they are given. Nevertheless, keep in mind that the "influencers." will not always be able to balance you. Inspire and encourage the people so they can make effective decisions for themselves.

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Inverted U theory enables you to understand the relationship between pressure and performance. The result will be that you'll get the finest results from a happy and engaged team!

 When people feels the right amount of pressure, they often perform brilliantly. But, if there's too much or too little pressure, performance can suffer.

The Inverted-U Theory gets its name from the curve created when the correlation between pressure and performance is shown on a graph below.inverted-u-theory.png.c53ec9060c0d2c07a35ec719aa3baedc.png


The left hand side of the graph, above, shows the situation where people aren't being challenged. Here, they see no motive to work hard at a task, or they're in danger of approaching their work in a "sloppy," unmotivated way.


The middle of the graph shows where people work at peak Productiveness. They're Satisfactorily motivated to work hard, but they're not so overloaded that they're starting to struggle. This is where people can experience "flow," the Pleasant and highly productive state in which they can do their best work.


The right hand side of the graph shows where they're starting to crumble under pressure. They're engulfed by the volume and scale of competing demands on their attention and feeling a serious lack of control over their situation. They may exhibit signs of hastiness , stress, or out-and-out panic.


The Project Leader can use the Inverted-U Theory while allocating tasks to the people in its team and planning his own task/work also.


Start by thinking about existing pressures. If you're feel that someone might be at risk of overload, see if you can take some of the pressure off them. This helps them to improve the standard of their tasks/work.


And, if anyone is underworked, it may be in everyone's interest to shorten some deadlines, increase key targets, or add extra responsibilities but only with clear communication and agreement.


Try to provide team members with tasks and projects of right level of complexity, and work to build confidence in the people who need it.


Also, manage any Pessimism in your team, and train your people so that they have the skills they need to do the jobs they're given



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