People can improve performance on tasks ranging across:
- Solving anagrams
- Playing video games
- Professional golf competition at the Masters Tournament
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:
- “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.
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.
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.
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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