optimal performance, a step at a time.

Getting your employees to optimal performance, a step at a time.

Since Covid-19 arrived more than a year ago, we have heard many work-from-home employees reporting stress and feeling less productive because of the stress. What is causing all the stress? There are multiple factors reported: home environment, increased workload, reduced job security, lower psychological safety(1), among many others. With all these physical, emotional, and mental pressures, how can we best help our employees to perform at their optimal performance?

Before we delve into the answer, let’s first look at what is optimal performance. When you are performing at your best, challenges – whether they are task or team-related – feel like they are in balance with pressure. The phrase most people use to describe the optimal performance is ‘in the zone’.

Believe it or not, there are ways to harness states of optimal performance and these skills can be learned. Self-confidence and assertiveness are key behaviours in workplace stress management, which directly affects our individual performance. According to studies, these behaviours can affect as much as 38% of our psychological well-being(2).

Assertiveness is often confused with aggressiveness. An assertive person is a confident person who is not afraid to say what they want or believe without being forceful. The difference between assertive and aggressive is ‘forceful behaviour’, to get others to do something.

Environment check

Let’s first look at the environment that your employees are in. Do they feel psychologically safe in their team? Meaning to say, are they comfortable voicing out their concerns and problems without being “punished’? Do they feel like they are under surveillance, or not trusted to do their job properly? If the environment is not psychologically safe, it can have a big knockdown on even the most confident person. 

When you have established that the team environment is psychologically safe for your employees, they can build their confidence by practicing to say ‘no’. 

If you are someone who has been raised to ‘help others where you can’ or ‘think of others before you think of yourself’, it can be hard to say ‘no’ upfront. After all, you don’t want to be known as a selfish person, do you?

For the greater good

In most companies, altruistic behaviour is heavily encouraged at work ‘for the greater good’. So for employees who put others before themselves, it may feel like they are doing the right thing to help others even though they may not have adequate resources to manage the additional workplace stress that it causes. 

Let’s take an example of Natalie who works in a middle management role and is also balancing working from home with educating two kids.

Natalie gets a request from her colleague to help with an urgent work task that will take about 1 hour of her time. Another colleague could have easily helped, but instead, she agreed to help because saying no may lead to her colleague talking badly behind her back, something she cannot control.

With the 1 hour of her time put towards an unplanned task, means there is 1 hour less for her to focus on her own task. If this is a one-off distraction, perhaps she could still perform optimally. But what if she has 5 such requests in a day? The requests can come from her kids asking to help with homework, a friend who is going through a difficult time and wanting support, her manager giving ad hoc tasks etc.

So, what would you do if you were in Natalie’s shoes? Looking at this situation, it’s easy to advise her to ‘just say no’. Studies(3) have shown that we are better at advising others than advising ourselves. Perhaps Natalie feels like it’s a worthwhile trade-off. After all, it increases emotional intelligence, right?

“If we lack emotional intelligence, whenever stress rises the human brain switches to autopilot and has an inherent tendency to do more of the same, only harder.  Which, more often than not, is precisely the wrong approach in today’s world.” 
-Dr. Robert K. Cooper, Strategist

Say ‘no’ without saying ‘no’

There is a middle path between saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’, called Tactful Decline. By using these ‘tactful decline’ strategies(4), you can build your confidence and assertiveness and do the same for your employees. What are the strategies?

1. Alternative Strategy: Give alternative suggestions.
2. Policy Strategy: That’s the way it is.
3. Other-party Strategy: A prior commitment to another person.

To demonstrate what each of these ‘no without saying no’ strategies sound like, let’s look at a simple scenario where a friend asks you to join an event when you would rather be having some “me-time”.


Example response

Alternative Strategy

Sure, I’d love to come, but can I come at [x] time? 

Policy Strategy

Recently my family and I have a policy of spending evenings together so that we can spend more quality time with each other.

Other-party Strategy

I would love to, but I’ve already promised my partner that I would help him with [y].

Start with baby steps

As the saying goes, “Rome was not built in a day”. Neither are self-confidence and assertiveness.  It will require small, deliberate practice, coaching and follow up to see a real difference in behaviour that will produce meaningful results. 

In your coaching group, you can start with small, baby steps. First role play the scenarios, then challenge each other to tactfully decline one easy request. From there, build on to two requests, then more challenging requests. This will help your colleagues to gradually build confidence for the challenging requests where the power dynamics are not in their favour (with a senior colleague, for example).

You may find that your colleague may be hesitant to try it, saying something like, “Oh, it’s just a one-off thing” or “It doesn’t take much time”. Let them know that one-off distractions and busy periods are very normal, but a prolonged and unchecked ‘disturbance’ creates stress that is currently affecting their performance. 

Once your colleagues are fluent in these ‘no without saying no’ strategies, it will come to them naturally and their assertiveness will improve. Before long, they will find that they have more time and control over their life, which lends itself gradually towards optimal performance. And, not to mention, developing yourself as a leader.

Of course, there are other tools that one can learn to help focus and achieve a state of optimal performance. However, these tools are built on the premise that the individual has enough ‘mental space’ to use the tools to the best effect. We will discuss more about what these tools are in future articles. For now, let us take the first step towards building emotional quotient through self-confidence & assertiveness.


1. https://www.peoplematters.in/article/culture/psychological-safety-enabling-interpersonal-risks-29425 
Ajay Patnaik, May 2021, “Psychological Safety: Enabling interpersonal risks”, peoplematters.in

2. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228079180_Self-Esteem_and_Psychological_Well-Being_Implications_of_Fragile_Self-Esteem
Andrew W Paradise & Michael H Kernis, October 2002, “Self-Esteem and Psychological Well-Being Implications of Fragile Self-Esteem”, Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 21(4):345-361

3. https://ideas.ted.com/build-confidence-self-efficacy-ask-for-advice/
Katy Milkman, May 2021, “Want to build someone’s confidence? Ask for their advice”, ideas.ted.com

4. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/learn-say-no-bosses-family-and-friends-they-wear-you-down
Eveline Gan, May 2021, “Learn to say ‘no’ to bosses, family and friends before they wear you down”, Today Online

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