Stress—a Good or Bad Sign in an Employee?

Will the calm, cool, and collected applicant turn out to be a better employee than the person who exhibits stress? Traditionally, companies have tended to think so. In fact, many industries conduct stress tests with current and prospective employees to see how they perform under pressure. Those who remain calm during the simulations are commonly seen as the best fit for stressful on-the-job situations.

Juan Pablo VielmaMIT Sloan professors Juan Pablo Vielma and Tauhid Zaman and graduate student Carter Mundell beg to differ with the conventional wisdom. By measuring galvanic skin response (GSR) over the course of an increasingly difficult exam, the three researchers came to the conclusion that those who perform best under duress actually exhibit some degree of stress when the stakes are lower.

Lie detector technology predicts success

GSR, which is used in polygraph tests, measures changes in skin resistance owing to sweat—a relatively easy way to measure stress, as the body’s sweat glands are connected to the central nervous system. In their paper “Predicting Performance Under Stressful Conditions Using Galvanic Skin Response” Vielma, Zaman and Mundell note that, in the past, the study of stress has focused on understanding it as opposed to predicting it. “Everyone else was looking at, ‘Why are you stressed now?’ We stumbled on whether they would be stressed in 10 minutes.”

The trio of researchers asked graduate students to do multiplication problems, giving them 25 cents for a correct answer. In the calibration round, there was no time limit. In the first round, participants received $1 for a correct answer during “bonus” time, which was 85 percent of the overall time limit. In the second round, the bonus time was shortened to 50 percent.

The participants who earned the most money in the high-stakes second round were more likely to have higher GSR levels during the calibration round. Those who earned the least had much lower GSR levels in the calibration round, suggesting that initial levels of stress are a signal that someone is preparing for the task at hand.

Fitness trackers as staffing tools

Consumer-grade wearables, such as the Microsoft Band 2 and the Basis Peak watch, include sensors that measure GSR. With the increasing availability of these devices, the MIT Sloan researchers believe the paradigm will shift for companies that want to make more informed decisions about who to hire, who to bring to a difficult negotiation, or who to put in charge of the most challenging tasks.

Read more about Mundell, Vielma, and Zaman’s research.