An organisation’s competitive advantage is usually directly tied to its employees’ productivity. Therefore, executives desire heightened productivity and often pressure their employees to continually perform at high levels. Although this pressure can motivate employees, it also serves as a significant workplace stressor. Employees’ accomplishments are short-lived, with managers patting them on the back for achieving yesterday’s goals and then immediately asking them to up the ante. In the end, employees likely feel the stress from these increasing (and seemingly unattainable) performance targets.
Continued pressure for heightened performance should be a concern for organisations. A balance is needed; managers should strive to enhance their employees’ performance while also maintaining a healthy and effective level of employee motivation. Because performance pressure serves as a significant source of stress for employees, continually pressuring them to raise performance can be counterproductive and may be at odds with effectively motivating them. At the surface level, performance pressure creates urgency to meet demands. Yet, at a deeper level, performance pressure creates strain associated with the consequences of it. Employees understand that meeting and exceeding performance targets likely produces desirable employee outcomes, such as promotions, raises, and other perks, but that falling short of performance targets can yield demoralising outcomes, such as demotions, probations, or even being fired. Thus, the stress experienced from pressure to perform may not effectively motivate higher performance and it can also foster dysfunctional, sometimes even unethical acts, to meet performance expectations. This is an unfortunate consequence that has been realised in the corporate world with examples such as with Wells Fargo, Uber, Volkswagen, and others – employees under pressure to perform feel the need to lie, deceive, and cheat others to reach high performance objectives.
A goal for managers, then, should be to encourage employees to strive for better performance without overly straining them or breaking their spirit. This issue highlights the potential problems associated with performance pressure and it prompts important questions for managers… What makes employees handle continuous, daily pressure to raise performance effectively? And how can employees be better-equipped to handle the pressure?
The results from our recent study suggest that performance pressure serves as a double-edged sword for organisations. On the one hand, performance pressure can be interpreted as threatening—where employees focus on the impossibility of raising their efforts and the looming punishments that will likely follow if they fall short of meeting performance targets. Seeing performance pressure as threatening, then, starts to eat away at these employees’ motivation and energy, which causes them to be highly ineffective and uncivil toward their co-workers. On the other hand, performance pressure can be interpreted as a challenge—where employees focus on the opportunities for growth and development that can result from raising their efforts to accomplish performance targets. Seeing performance pressure as challenging, then, bolsters these employees’ motivation and energy, which causes them to be more productive in their tasks and with their co-workers. A critical take-away for managers, therefore, is to be cautious with how performance expectations are relayed to employees. Managers should help employees see high performance targets as opportunities for workplace successes rather than threats to their well-being.
Our study also provided insight regarding a characteristic that make employees more appropriately “armed” to handle performance pressure. We investigated the role of employees’ resilience—their tendency to effectively cope with stress. Research in psychology and social psychology has pointed to the benefits of resilience, showing that individuals with a higher sense of resilience have the tendency to deal with stressful, demanding, and changing circumstances (such as performance pressure) with a cool head. Employees with high resilience sense the stress, but are inclined to see it as an opportunity for growth and learning rather than as menacing, threatening, or dangerous.
Consistent with these ideas, our findings highlighted the importance of resilience to employees dealing with daily performance pressure. We found that, day-to-day, resilient employees were far more likely to view performance pressure as challenging, which bolstered their energy and heightened their performance. These resilient employees were buffered from the downsides of performance pressure—they were much less likely to see performance pressure as threatening and, therefore, were protected from its depleting nature. Comparably, employees who were lacking in resilience were far more likely to experience the pressure as threatening, which drained their energy and motivation and made them less effective at work.
Overall, there is good news for managers. Not all employees are impaired by the continuous need to raise performance. Some employees thrive in the face of performance pressure, attacking the situation with gusto, which allows them to raise their efforts to create functional and productive outcomes for organisations. The key is resilience. Thus, when hiring for positions that entail a great deal of performance pressure, managers should focus on recruiting resilient employees, as these employees will be more likely to flourish than their less resilient counterparts. Importantly too, past research has suggested that employees can be trained to be more resilient. Therefore, offering employees ways to enhance their resilience may prove to be a valuable investment for organisations.
- This blog post is based on the authors’ paper Can You Handle the Pressure? The Effect of Performance Pressure on Stress Appraisals, Self-regulation, and Behavior, Academy of Management Journal, Volume 62, No 2, 2019.
- The post gives the views of its authors, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
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Marie S. Mitchell is a professor of management in the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia. Her research focuses on social and ethical issues in organisational behaviour and human resource management, with focus on how leader-follower interactions and organisational factors influence destructive and unethical behaviour. Her research has appeared in leading academic journals.
Mary Mawritz is an associate professor of management at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business. Her areas of expertise are abusive supervision, deviant behaviour and leadership. She received her PhD in business administration/management from the University of Central Florida, Orlando, in 2009.
Rebecca L. Greenbaum is a professor of human resources management at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations. She received her Master’s in human resources management from the University of Central Florida in 2008, followed by her PhD in business administration in 2009. Rebecca’s research interests include behavioural ethics, dysfunctional leadership, organisational justice, workplace deviance, and the effects of social media on workplace relationships.
Ryan M. Vogel is an assistant professor in the department of human resource management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. Prior to joining Temple, he held academic positions at Southern Methodist University and Penn State University in Erie. He is known for his research in the area of person-environment fit, abusive supervision, and employee engagement. Recently, his work on fit has focused on the work lives of those who can be considered ‘misfits’ in organisations.