Article | Administrative Science Quarterly | March 2012

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

by Heidi K. Gardner


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 the team's motivation to achieve good results while simultaneously triggering process losses. I conducted a multimethod 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 overly rely on general expertise while discounting domain-specific expertise, leading to suboptimal performance. I then use longitudinal qualitative case studies of six project teams across two firms to explore the underlying behavioral mechanisms that generate this outcome. Results reveal four limiting team processes: (1) a drive toward consensus, (2) a focus on common knowledge, (3) a shift from learning to project completion, and (4) increased conformity to the status hierarchy. Results also show that only domain-specific expertise—the kind that teams underuse 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: Motivation and Incentives; Knowledge Use and Leverage; Behavior; Groups and Teams; Performance;


Gardner, Heidi K. "Performance Pressure as a Double-edged Sword: Enhancing Team Motivation but Undermining the Use of Team Knowledge." Administrative Science Quarterly 57, no. 1 (March 2012): 1–46.