Performance pressure is when employees feel an urgency to perform at a high level. This is quite common in the workplace, as marketplace competition ensures that performance will always be valued and tied to substantial consequences for employees. Research has shown that performance pressure can motivate some employees to perform at a high level to gain promotions or salary increases.
However, research has also found that for some employees, performance pressure leads to stress that could impair productivity. Researchers have lacked answers for why some employees are able to handle pressure better than others. This information could help organizations provide resources that foster productivity and a positive work environment. New research (Mitchell et al., 2019) answers this question.
The authors recruited a sample of 108 employees from various industries (education, healthcare, and manufacturing). Participants first completed an initial survey that assessed their level of trait resilience (the ability to handle stress). Then participants received two daily surveys for 10 days. They completed one survey at noon that assessed performance pressure, and a second survey as soon as possible after leaving work for the day. This second daily survey assessed all the other study variables described below.
Threat Appraisal, Self-Regulation Depletion, and Incivility
Threat appraisal means experiencing performance pressure as a threat. Self-regulation is the ability to manage one’s behavior. The authors found that on a daily basis, the study participants who saw performance pressure as a threat had a lower ability to self-regulate. The explanation that the authors offer for this lowered self-regulation is that internal resources (e.g., energy, motivation) are depleted due to the threat appraisal.
For these participants, the greater the performance pressure, the less they were able to regulate their behavior. In turn, this tended to increase incivility. That is, they were more likely to behave dysfunctionally in the workplace, such as by being rude or showing disregard toward others.
Challenge Appraisal, Engagement, Task Proficiency, and Citizenship
Challenge appraisal is experiencing performance pressure as a challenge rather than as a threat. The researchers found that on a daily basis, those participants who viewed performance pressure as a challenge were more engaged in their work. In turn, these participants had higher task proficiency, and exhibited more citizenship behavior in the workplace (e.g., being courteous or helpful to others).
Adding Trait Resilience to the Mix
The researchers also found that on a daily basis, the above-mentioned associations were stronger depending on trait resilience, which is the ability to handle stress. For participants with lower trait resilience, the relationship between performance pressure, threat appraisal, self-regulation depletion, and incivility was stronger compared to those with higher trait resilience.
For participants with higher trait resilience, the relationship between performance pressure, challenge appraisal, engagement, task proficiency, and citizenship was stronger compared to those with lower trait resilience.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
The researchers found that performance pressure can lead to both functional and dysfunctional outcomes. They found that not only did performance pressure affect those with high versus low trait resilience differently, but that the effects can also vary for an individual on a day-to-day basis.
Level of trait resilience was related to whether participants saw performance pressure as a threat or challenge. Those with low trait resilience were more likely to experience it as a threat, and in turn were more likely to have trouble self-regulating, and to be uncivil in the workplace. Those with high trait resilience were more likely to experience performance pressure as a challenge, were more likely to be engaged and proficient in their work, and displayed greater citizenship in the workplace.
Given the study findings, the authors suggest that managers be mindful in how they communicate performance expectations to employees; they recommend that the benefits and opportunities of performance pressure be emphasized to employees so that pressure can be viewed as a challenge rather than a threat.
The authors also recommend using reliable and valid personality measures to assess for trait resilience during the interview process. They also recommend that these measures be paired with other screening techniques such as critical incident interviews.
Mitchell, M.S., Greenbaum, R.L., Vogel, R.M., Mawritz, M.B. & Keating, D.J. (2019). Can you handle the pressure? The effect of performance pressure on stress appraisals, self-regulation, and behavior. Academy of Management Journal, 62(2), 531-552.