Work with Experts – But Don’t Compete – to Improve Performance

Francis Flynn

Francis Flynn

People can improve performance on tasks ranging across:

Emily Amanatullah

Emily Amanatullah

when performing individually but alongside an outstanding performer, according to Stanford’s Francis Flynn and University of Texas, Austin’s Emily Amanatullah.

They attributed performance enhancement to increased mental focus and physical effort, motivated by:

Robert Zajonc

Robert Zajonc

  • Social facilitation due to the expert role model’s mere presence, described more than 50 years ago by Robert Zajonc, then of University of Michigan
  • Social comparison” with “skillful coactors,” demonstrated by University of North Carolina’s John Seta.

    John Seta

    John Seta

However, performance declined when people competed directly with a strong performer, Flynn and Amanatullah reported.
They concluded that “high status coactors” enable people to “psych up” performance when not competing, but become “psyched out” when challenging the expert, based on their analysis of Masters golf tournament statistics over five years.

Ray Reagans

Ray Reagans

High status co-actors can achieve their influential position through demonstrated skill or their greater awareness of status dynamics due to better ability to “self-monitor,” found Flynn and Amanatullah with Ray E. Reagans of Carnegie Mellon and Daniel R. Ames of Columbia University.

Daniel R Ames

Daniel R Ames

People with greater self-monitoring ability tend to more effective in managing their “exchange relationships,” and generally establish a reputation as a generous “exchange partner.”

As a result, they are typically more likely than low self-monitors to be sought out for help and to refrain from asking others for help.

Co-action,” organizational status differences and interpersonal “exchange” all occur in organizations when employees work independently but in near proximity with others, and when people collaborate toward shared goals.

These finding suggest that working near expert colleagues can enable improve performance among co-workers, but competition for salary increases, promotions, access to special training, and other perks can undermine individual achievement by provoking anxiety.

Flynn and Amanatullah recommended that organizations and employees can showcase desired skillful performance by role models, while enabling employees to earn rewards and incentives through individual efforts rather than competition.
This recommendation may be impossible to implement in hierarchical organizations that identify “high potential” employees and differentiate performance through “stack ranking.”

-*How do you avoid the “psych out” effect of competing with highly skilled performers?

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