• Managing people

A Downside to Great Expectations

Study shows how setting high performance expectations can often be counterproductive


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When it comes to innovation it is widely understood that it is good to 'dream big' while being ready to fail, learn, and move on. But, it is not the same with personal employee performance. Here there is a danger that setting expectations too high can lead to demotivation and diminished performance.

We all want to make a good impression on those around us—be it bosses, co-workers, clients, family, or friends. Their hopes and expectations provide important motivation to improve our performance. However, while high external performance expectations often improve performance, they can also have the opposite effect. People who experience early setbacks and fail to meet expectations, rather than learning and improving, can just feel a sense of embarrassment and dejection which reduces their motivation to persist and can ultimately lead to failure.

Research, by a team from the Chicago Booth School of Business, The Wharton School, and UCLA Anderson School of Management, demonstrates the negative impact paying attention to the impression others have of you can have on performance, when people face early setbacks. The researchers found that those burdened with too high expectations can be significantly embarrassed when they encounter early failure and, unsurprisingly, want to avoid any additional failure. As a result, they often give up and seek an exit strategy rather than persist in the endeavour—maybe subtly switching tasks or diverting attention, or more explicitly quitting the project or resigning an executive position.

The research suggests that managers, striving to improve employee performance, should not expect external performance expectations to be a silver bullet that automatically improves performance. They can become a liability in the face of an early setback and what is more motivation is not the only factor in performance results—extenuating circumstances and even luck play a part.

When high expectations drive an individual’s motivation, the impact of early public failure is even more devastating. The potential negative impact of early failure on persistence and success is especially present in industries that attract high performers. High performers set high personal expectations and are acutely sensitive to high external expectations. Even performers with an abundance of initial confidence can fail to overcome the pressure of failing early to meet high expectations.

Advice for managers

Recognizing the danger of high-performance expectations does not mean abandoning expectations altogether. However, managers should take these steps to mitigate the potential negative impact of high expectations:

Manage subordinate expectations by fostering a culture of learning from mistakes. When people see mistakes as opportunities to learn rather than just failures, an early setback is less likely to spark the level of embarrassment that would push them to give up.

Manage subordinate expectations by cultivating a growth mindset culture. In a growth mindset culture, the organization recognizes and celebrates the fact that there is room for learning and growth in everyone. No one is the perfect expert, always expected to know everything and perform perfectly.

Rethink ranking systems. Ranking systems, in which employees are publicly ranked based on performance—with those not meeting expectations facing consequences that can include being fired—are often used in companies to motivate employees to raise their performance. This research highlights the danger of destroying rather than increasing the motivation to perform. Ranking systems should be used with caution.

Access the original research: Quitting When the Going Gets Tough: A Downside of High Performance Expectations’. Hengchen Dai, Berkeley J. Dietvorst, Bradford Tuckfield, Katherine Milkman, Maurice F. Schweitzer. Academy of Management Journal

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