When Do High Expectations Decrease Performance?

Topic(s): engagement, leadership, motivation, performance
Publication: Academy of Management Journal
Article: Quitting when the going gets tough: A downside of high performance expectations
Authors: H. Dai, B.J. Dietvorst, B. Tuckfield, K.L. Milkman, M.E. Schweitzer
Reviewed by: William Hasek

When others expect you to do great work, persistence is often key to success. Persistence is partly a matter of individual qualities such as motivation and leadership, but it is also a matter of social environment. The added pressure of high external expectations often causes people to expect more of themselves and to push forward when they encounter failure. Previous research verifies that high expectations lead to increased effort and achievement. But sometimes high expectations can raise concerns about professional reputation. Fearing that failure could damage their standing, employees may feel embarrassed, make excuses, and withdraw their efforts.


To examine the potential negative effects of high expectations, the researchers (Dai, et al., 2018) conducted two studies. The first study examined archival data from men’s tennis matches. Tennis is a competitive sport and favored players are established on the basis of commentary and world rankings. These favored players face high expectations for their performance. Statistical analysis showed that if a player was favored to win a match and he performed poorly in the initial part of the game, he was significantly more likely to quit and claim he was injured.

In the second study, students were brought into a lab and asked to compete in a trivia challenge. They were told they would receive money for correctly answering questions and their performance would be publically ranked. All students were asked the same questions, but one group was told that the questions were easy, which caused them to face higher expectations for their performance. After the first 20 questions, the students could choose to switch trivia topics, which would cause them to lose money but improve their public rankings. At various points in the study, the students rated their emotions and level of confidence. The results showed that students who faced high external expectations were more likely to feel embarrassed and to switch topics during the game.


This research demonstrated that when people face high external expectations and they experience failure early on, they are more likely to feel embarrassed and to choose not to persist. Furthermore, the research showed that people will make this decision even when it has financial costs. In organizations, the decision not to persist could take many forms, such as stepping down from a position or focusing attention on other projects.  This is more likely to happen in highly competitive environments, such as finance. Managers can help employees face early setbacks, find ways to help them save face, and develop strategies to manage their feelings of embarrassment, such as coaching them toward a growth mindset. The research also suggests that companies should be cautious when using ranking systems, as this may heighten pressure on employees and decrease their persistence when they face challenges early on in a project.


Dai, H., Dietvorst, B. J., Tuckfield, B., Milkman, K. L., & Maurice, S. E. (2018). Quitting when the going gets tough: A downside of high performance expectations. Academy of Management Journal, 61(5), 1667-1691.