The world of tennis sheds light on a potential downside to office ranking systems
Any manager tasked with a challenging project is likely to tap the office rock stars for the assignment, relying on their talent and inner drive to get the job done.
What makes great intuitive sense can nonetheless backfire.
A new study in the Academy of Management Journal suggests that people saddled with the high expectations of others are less resilient when a challenge proves tough in the early going. High performers with high expectations placed on their shoulders throw in the towel more often than people who aren't weighed down by the same outside pressure to perform.
"Those facing high expectations are more easily embarrassed by poor performance and, consequently, less persistent following early setbacks," write UCLA Anderson's Hengchen Dai, the University of Chicago's Berkeley Dietvorst, American Express Global Business Travel's Bradford Tuckfield and the University of Pennsylvania's Katherine L. Milkman and Maurice E. Schweitzer.
Their study suggests a potentially "harmful consequence" to using ranking systems, which are all about telegraphing management expectations. "Our findings suggest that ranking systems should be used with caution," the authors write .
The researchers pored over more than 325,000 men's tennis matches spanning nearly four decades and calculated the frequency of a player's quitting after losing the first set. The vast majority of matches are best two-out-of-three; across all the matches studied, players who came up on the short end in the opening set went on to lose the match more than 80 percent of the time.
To be sure, injuries do occur, but the rules of the professional tour provide reputational cover for all quitting. Injury or illness is the only officially accepted reason to give up, which means quitting also conveniently provides a face-saving explanation for losing the first set. The researchers noted — critically — that their analysis compared slight favorites (players whose ranking was just barely superior to their opponent's) with slight underdogs (players whose ranking was just barely inferior to their opponent's). They found that slight favorites were more likely to quit than slight underdogs after losing the first set — even though the likelihood of illness or injury is identical. "We have suggestive evidence that some of the injuries that favorites claim are, at the very least, less severe than those claimed by underdogs if not entirely fictitious."
Although quitting is not common (the average rate is 1.4 percent) the graphic below shows that higher-ranked players who bear the burden of a crowd (and media) full of expectations, indeed, have a higher quit rate after a first-set setback than lower-ranked players.