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

by Heidi K. Gardner

Overview — Why do teams often fail to use their knowledge resources effectively even after they have correctly identified the experts among them? Project teams are a prominent feature of the knowledge-based economy, and member expertise has long been recognized as an important resource that can greatly affect team performance, but only to the extent that it is accurately recognized and used to accomplish the objective. The step between recognizing others' expertise and then actually applying it to achieve a collective outcome, however, is highly problematic: Even when individuals know who holds relevant task expertise, they are often unwilling or unable to give the experts appropriate influence over the group process and outcomes. HBS professor Heidi K. Gardner takes a multidisciplinary approach to develop theory explaining how interpersonal dynamics in teams affect members' use of each other's distinct knowledge, ultimately leading to differential performance outcomes. Key concepts include:

  • Teams facing significant performance pressures tend to default to high-status members at the expense of using team members with deep knowledge of the client, with detrimental effects on team performance.
  • The more important the project, the less effective the team: Excessive performance pressure results in the team reverting to less effective ways of divvying up influence over its end product, in turn leading to lower performance ratings for the whole team.
  • Team process is important in enabling organizations to harness knowledge resources for the benefit of maintaining strong relations with their clients.

Author 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.

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