Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2009

Performance Pressure as a Double-Edged Sword: Enhancing Team Motivation While Undermining the Use of Team Knowledge

by Heidi K. Gardner

Abstract

In this paper, I develop and empirically test the proposition that performance pressure acts as a double-edged sword for teams, providing positive effects by enhancing team motivation to achieve good results while simultaneously triggering process losses. I conducted a multi-method field study of 78 audit and consulting teams from two global professional firms, revealing an irony of team life: Even though motivated to perform well on a high-stakes project, pressured teams are more likely to engage in performance-detracting behaviors. Survey results show that, as performance pressure increases, team members begin to over-rely on general expertise while discounting domain-specific expertise, leading to suboptimal performance. I use longitudinal qualitative case studies to explore the underlying behavioral mechanisms that generate this outcome. Results also show that only domain-specific expertise-the kind that teams under-use when facing higher pressure-increases client-rated team performance. I thus find, paradoxically, that when teams need domain-specific expertise the most, they tend to use it the least, despite evidence suggesting they are highly motivated to do well on their task.

Keywords: Experience and Expertise; Knowledge Use and Leverage; Performance Effectiveness; Performance Expectations; Groups and Teams;

Citation:

Gardner, Heidi K. "Performance Pressure as a Double-Edged Sword: Enhancing Team Motivation While Undermining the Use of Team Knowledge." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 09-126, April 2009. (Revised January 2012.)