The Fall of Icarus, Jacob Peter Gowy, c.1636 (Courtesy Museo del Prado, Madrid)
Ideas for Leaders #782

Setting High Performance Expectations Can Lead to Failure

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Key Concept

While high external performance expectations often improve performance, they can also have the opposite effect. Research shows that high-performance expectations can increase the embarrassment of those who experience early setbacks, reducing their motivation to persist and leading, ultimately, to failure.

Idea Summary

Past research has demonstrated that high external performance expectations (e.g., from supervisors, co-workers, clients, family, friends, and the media) can motivate individuals to increase their efforts and be more persistent, leading to higher levels of performance. The source of this motivation is the desire to make a good impression on those who are watching.

One team of researchers, however, demonstrate that impression management — paying attention to and managing the impression that others have of you — can have a counterproductive impact on performance when individuals face early setbacks. Through both a field study and laboratory experiments, the researchers show that performers facing high expectations will be significantly embarrassed when they encounter early failure, will want to avoid any additional failure in front of observers. As a result, they are more likely to give up and seek an exit strategy rather than persist in the endeavour. Exit strategies can be as subtle as switching tasks or reallocating attention, and as explicit as quitting an executive position or terminating a project.

The researchers turn to the world of sports to first demonstrate the negative impact of early failure on persistence. Specifically, they analysed more than 300,000 men’s professional singles tennis matches played between 1973 and 2011. Losing the first set was the metric established for early performance failure (in more than 80% of professional tennis matches, the loser of the first set loses the match). The players’ world rankings, on which observers base their expectations of the players’ performance, set the external performance expectations measure. 

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Analysis of the data revealed that players favoured to win the match, even if they were only slightly favoured, were more likely to quit after losing the first set than the underdogs (even slight underdogs) in the match. (Since the only reason allowed for quitting in a professional tennis match is injury, the researchers in analysing the data controlled for the likelihood of actual injury.)

While demonstrating that early failure leads performers facing high expectations to look for the exits, the tennis data doesn’t prove that embarrassment in the face of high expectations is the motive for the lack of persistence. The researchers thus created a controlled experiment based on a trivia challenge game in which participants were asked a set of questions. The experiment set external expectations by dividing participants into two groups, one group of participants receiving questions that were labelled “middle school difficulty” and the second group receiving questions labelled “expert difficulty.”

The participants were told after each question whether they had answered correctly. Expectations for a good performance were obviously higher for those answering the middle school questions. However, while both sets of participants performed poorly (answering about 23% of the question correctly in both cases), those answering middle school grade questions were less persistent: they switched to a new topic (the exit strategy for the experiment) as soon as they could. Participants answering the expert difficulty questions persisted in answering questions on the original topic. 

A survey was conducted about midway during the session, in which participants rated on a scale of 1 to 7 how “embarrassed,” “self-conscious,” disgraced,” and “ashamed” they were (1= not at all, 7= very much). The survey showed that the participants that were more embarrassed (as measured by the average score of the four responses) were less persistent.

Business Application

The research offers important lessons for managers and executives striving to improve the performance of their subordinates:

  1. Don’t expect external performance expectations to be a silver bullet that automatically improves performance. Motivation is not the only factor in performance results. Extenuating circumstances and even luck play a part.
  2. External performance expectations become a liability in the face of an early setback. When high expectations drive an individual’s motivation, the impact of early public failure is even more devastating. 
  3. 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. 
  4. Even performers with an abundance of initial confidence can fail to overcome the pressure of failing early to meet high expectations.

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

  1. Manage subordinate expectations by fostering a culture of learning from mistakes. When mistakes are seen as opportunities rather than nothing but failures, an early setback is less likely to spark the level of embarrassment that would push an employee to give up.
  2. 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 considered the ultimate expert who is expected to know everything and perform perfectly at all times. 
  3. 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 (by creating the conditions for employees to be embarrassed) of destroying rather than increasing the motivation to perform. Ranking systems should be used with caution.
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Idea conceived

  • October 2018

Idea posted

  • December 2020

DOI number



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