What can cockroaches tell us about performance anxiety?

It turns out that cockroaches get stage fright.

Who knew?

But that insight might just be key to unlocking high performance in our teams…

Article by:

Mark Wright

When the American social psychologist, Robert Zajonc (1923 – 2008) started experimenting with cockroaches in 1965, he got them to negotiate a complicated maze whilst being watched. And they bombed…

But when he gave them a simpler maze, and a cockroach audience to show off to, it turns out that they excel!

This little bit of abstract insight led to similar experiments in humans and his theory of Social Facilitation. The argument is that when doing simple tasks that require little effort, performance improves with an audience, but when taking on more complex tasks, having others around is a real hindrance, and performance promptly suffers.

So why might this be useful to understand?

Well, from a leadership and team perspective, this is about two things: creating a conscious and specific context for high performance and emphasising deliberate practice (which I have mentioned before).

So where do we start?

First of all, we have to get to the starting line and put some basics in place. From a leadership perspective, the solid foundations of your conscious performance context are going to be:

Clear Expectations: communicating clear goals, expectations, and standards; with clarity comes an alignment of efforts and accountability.

Support and Resources: providing what’s needed for the team to complete the task; offering guidance, removing obstacles, and providing development opportunities.

Empowerment: encouraging autonomy, decision-making authority, and ownership over the team’s work; trust fosters engagement and motivation.

Effective Communication: open, transparent, and approachable; actively listening to colleagues, providing feedback, and facilitating open dialogue.

Role Modelling: demonstrating integrity, accountability, professionalism, and a strong work ethic; setting a positive mindset and inspiring others to follow suit.

Collaboration: an environment where ideas are shared and opinions are sought out; encouraging creativity, innovation, and problem-solving.

Celebrating Achievements: recognising and celebrating the wins, efforts and contributions; marking milestones, and rewarding effort and experimentation as well as success.

Building a Growth Mindset: encouraging continuous learning, emphasising the need for learning through competent failures; embracing challenge, and cultivating resilience and agility.

Constructive Feedback: timely, specific, and constructive feedback on strengths as well as appropriate attention on areas for improvement.

Adapting to Change: being adaptable and resilient; able to navigate uncertainty, adjust strategies, and effectively support others through transition.

And once these foundations are in place, deliberate practice is how a team, or individuals, move from effective delivery to sustainable high performance. 

This is the transition from great to exceptional; it’s a relentless focus on:

Breaking down goals into manageable tasks or steps that can be practiced individually.

Focused attention on the task at hand; minimise distractions to ensure maximum engagement and cognitive effort.

Consistent feedback from leaders, colleagues, clients and suppliers; reflect, practice and adjust accordingly.

Repetitive practice and consistent focus on skill acquisition over time, developing muscle memory, and subconscious proficiency.

Stretching Limits to test comfort zones; presenting challenges that are slightly beyond current proficiency.

Adopt marginal gain by breaking down complex skills into smaller components and work on improving each component systematically.

Design purposeful activities that are directly relevant to goals; drills, simulations, or other structured exercises intended to enhance specific aspects of performance.

Monitoring progress to measure improvement over time and adjust practice strategies based on data-driven insights.

As you can probably see from these two lists, this is no walk in the park; it requires real effort, dedication and passion. Which is why it is so rare to find. 

However, what makes it a little more attainable is an understanding of Zajonc’s Social Facilitation

In the open or behind closed doors?

Properly recognising that the presence of others influences individual and group performance helps us shape environments that are more useful and productive. 

For straightforward tasks, go for collaboration, best practice sharing and marginal gain. For complex tasks, back off. 

When the focus is on familiar, repetitive delivery, create a context of appropriate competition, radical transparency and regular opportunities to feed back and co-create incremental improvement. This is collaborative, whole team activity, performed confidently with external inputs, judgement and openness.

If it needs focused attention and problem-solving, then minimise distractions and encourage independent experimentation. Allow your teams to push their limits and experiment with complexity well away from the glare of the public gaze. Give them space for radical testing and playful exploration, free from judgement by colleagues or bosses.

Consider the types of task you have

If you are responsible for delegating or sharing tasks across your team or organisation and you are interested in leveraging Social Facilitation, then it probably pays to consider more fully the types of tasks that you are asking others to be working on.

Broadly speaking, tasks fall into one of three categories: additive, cognitive or judgemental.

Additive Tasks involve combining different elements or components to create a final product or outcome. These tasks typically require physical manipulation and/or repetitive actions; think about assembling products on an assembly line, stacking items in a warehouse, or transferring specific output from one colleague to another for enhancement or specialist input. Success in additive tasks depends on accuracy, efficiency, and consistency in performing the required actions.

Cognitive Tasks involve reasoning, problem-solving, and decision-making. These tasks require cognitive abilities such as memory, attention, perception, and logical thinking. Examples include analysing data, writing reports, or designing strategies, and the emphasis here is on analytical skills, creativity, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge and expertise to solve problems effectively.

Judgmental Tasks are all about making evaluations and assessments based on available information or criteria. These tasks require us to analyse situations, weigh different options, and make decisions or recommendations, sometimes without absolute clarity. Judgmental tasks include assessing risks, evaluating performance, selecting candidates or determining the best course of action. They are also most susceptible to bias and assumptions so success in judgmental tasks depends on sound judgment, objectivity, and the ability to consider various factors and perspectives before making decisions.

So when you consider Social Facilitation through this lens of task type, you can probably see how additive tasks lend themselves to open, collaborative, competitive improvement. The Toyota Production System and its famous Kaizen approach to continuous improvement would be a most obvious example,  as would GB Cycling’s successes through marginal gain.

On the other hand, judgemental tasks are better done in discrete, considered environments with space for safe, exploratory dialogue. Whilst the output decisions need to be properly justified, the process is not helped by excessive external interference or observation. There is a reason why juries have their discussions in private and why strategy days usually happen away from the office.

Cognitive tasks represent the middle ground here and are probably the most challenging for leaders to create the appropriate context. Maybe it comes down to maturity and experience? Try finding space to support and coach less experienced team members whilst gradually exposing them to scrutiny and challenge in a more public forum. Leading team members through unfamiliar cognitive tasks is like an inverted funnel – starting close and intimate with coaching and discussion before bringing in controlled challenge and rigour that prepares the ground for full on exposure.

Pursuing elite performance

To understand this in action, watch how elite athletes build and sustain performance under pressure. They have to confound the Social Facilitation model to be able to perform at their best whilst under intense scrutiny.

It starts with deliberate and focussed practice on drills, getting the basics right through repetition, coaching and collaborative, playful effort. This is the space for marginal gain, discipline and grit. 

They then ramp up tolerance for being observed in their cognitive and judgemental tasks by allowing supporters to watch them in practice, before going full on in front of the roaring crowds. By this point, when all the jigsaw pieces are in place, the muscle memory kicks in and performance is actually enhanced by observation – the exceptional performers deliver at a whole new level in front of the crowd.

And they haven’t got to that point by magic…

The Hawthorne Effect

As a slight aside, let’s talk about the Hawthorne Effect. This was first noted in 1953 by John French but is based on research from the 1920’s that was undertaken in a factory called The Hawthorne Works. The findings of that research suggest that when somebody is being knowingly observed, their behaviour changes (either positively or negatively) as a result of being watched, rather than as a result of any direct intervention.

Being watched makes us do better, if and when that observation is undertaken in a supportive context. In those moments, sections of the brain linked to social awareness and reward excite another part of the brain that controls motor skills which, in turn, improves performance at skilled tasks.

So get fans in to watch us in safe, practice environments and we will do better. Even cardboard cut out fans and artificial roaring crowds help trick our brains into doing better.

What can we take from this?

Withstanding the performance anxiety, in the public gaze, is the trick of elite athletes; inverting social facilitation to make complexity feel simple is the difference between being great and being exceptional.

It takes massive effort, dedication and resilience just to get into the game and a more subtle understanding of Social Facilitation to perpetuate that performance under pressure.

If you are leader thinking about ramping up the performance in your team, consider the following:

  1. Create a very conscious performance context – be explicit in your expectations and hold yourself to account
  1. Introduce Deliberate Practice disciplines into your development conversations
  1. Shape your leadership context so that it supports the performance/anxiety curve for your teams
  1. Understand the nature of the tasks you are undertaking and adjust your approach accordingly
  1. Supportive observation, interest and feedback accelerates performance, so be present whenever you can

This is my leadership learning from cockroaches…

When you want to find out more about the work we are doing with teams and organisations all over the world, helping create high performance, do get in touch.

We are ready when you are.

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