For many organizations, the rapid pace of technological change and global competition have driven the need for increased speed in executing complex projects. Organizations have responded by investing in and deploying more expert teams – and expecting exceptional outcomes from them. For those teams, the pressure to perform comes from a combination of shared accountability, a high-level of scrutiny, and significant consequences of the project’s outcome. These expert teams find the combination of high-stakes and elevated expectations to be strongly motivating. Yet, a paradox ensues. The same pressures that motivate these teams to perform, may also result in behaviors that undermine their performance.

The same pressures that motivate expert teams to excel also undermine their performance.

The Research

In a study of 78 teams at two global professional services firms, Harvard Business School Associate Professor Dr. Heidi Gardner tested the proposition that performance pressure acts as both a motivator and trigger, for behaviors that diminish the delivery of exceptional results. Her research revealed an interesting pattern. As performance pressure increases, expert teams remain highly engaged and motivated. However, they also become risk-averse, defaulting to familiar solutions and taking a path to a safer outcome, versus striving to deliver the innovative, transformative results expected of an expert team. Gardner identifies four performance pressure driven behaviors that lead to these sub-optimal team results: (1) as performance pressure increases there is a drive to consensus rather than embracing diverse options. (2) A focus on common, general knowledge versus leveraging subject matter expertise. (3) A shift from learning and competency development to project completion, and (4) increased conformity and deference to role hierarchy. The result is that the subject matter expertise around which the team was assembled is underutilized, diminishing the value of the results.

Avoiding the Path to Mediocrity

Gardner’s research results identified a critical driver of differences in team performance, even among expert teams: team norms. The author’s research explains that, as performance pressure grows, team norms may begin to shift away from supporting behaviors that are essential to exceptional performance, and toward norms that lead to mediocrity. Specifically, performance pressure can lead to a diminished level of conversation equality among team members, especially sharing expert knowledge, and eroding the level of psychological safety of subject matter experts that resist conforming to general knowledge-driven solutions.

The takeaway for team leaders is that, even among highly-motivated expert teams, there is a risk of mediocre performance. As you increase performance pressure on the team you must instill the discipline of monitoring and managing team norms, especially those focused on openness to new ideas and options from experts.

So, keep up the pressure on performance, but ensure that the team provides constant feedback on the state of key relationships. Gaps in those relationships due to norms shifting will lead to the deterioration of those relationships and underachieving on the goal of delivering exceptional team outcomes.

Gardner, H. K. (2012). Performance pressure as a double-edged sword: Enhancing team motivation but undermining the use of team knowledge. Administrative Science Quarterly, 57, 1-46. doi:10.1177/0001839212446454

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