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07 Apr. 2014 | Comments (0)

There are two major reasons baseball has been such a boon to statisticians trying to measure human performance. First, sample size: the United States alone fields 30 major league teams — each with a 40-man roster — that play 162 regular-season games. Every game comprises hundreds of plays. Second, because of the way the game is designed, you truly can measure individual performance as well as team performance.

But researchers trying to crunch the numbers on how the rest of us perform at work — that is, assuming your work is not to hit a small round ball with a thin round bat — have a tougher time. So can you forgive them for going back to the ballplayers?

Jennifer Carson Marr of Georgia Institute of Technology and Stefan Thau of London Business School did just that to try to quantify how top performers handle setbacks. They studied all 199 non-pitchers (pitchers tend to skew sample sizes in irritating ways) who had undergone salary arbitration since 1974, when the process was introduced. In the U.S., baseball’s arbitration process is famously bizarre — the player comes up with a number, the team comes up with a number, and the arbitrator chooses one or the other. Compromises are not allowed. The result is a clear winner and, very definitely, a clear loser.

Marr and Thau’s findings: when players lost their arbitration cases, their performance suffered. And the very best players suffered the most. The mediocre players, by contrast, barely suffered at all.

Before you chalk this up to sulky stars or greenhorned rookies, remember: most of the players who are arbitration-eligible have played in more than 3, and less than 6, baseball seasons. In other words, they’re young players with some experience who have every incentive to perform at a high level and prove they’re worth more money. And unlike in other sports, where salaries are capped, the riches to be had if you’re one of baseball’s top players are still mind-bogglingly massive.

So why would top performers perform worse after an arbitration loss? And, if it is the loss of status that gets under their skin — as the researchers theorized — how could this be prevented?

To find out, Marr and Thau ran a couple of behavioral experiments on a few willing students. Again, the loss of status hurt performance — but this time, they found that the effect was mitigated when the students were assigned a self-affirming task (in this case, writing about someone who made them feel respected).

Professor Marr tells the Academy of Management, whose journal is publishing the paper in their February/March issue, that there are three main lessons here for top performers:

  • First, take a break after a setback. You might be tempted to redouble your efforts, but chances are that you’re just going to end up making a bunch of mistakes.
  • Second, focus on something — outside of work — that makes you feel good about yourself. Many stars identify strongly with their jobs (that’s what helps make them stars), but after a loss of face, it’s the stuff we’ve got going on outside of work that will cheer you up — relationships, hobbies, and so on.
  • Finally, acknowledge that the hit to your ego is only temporary. You — like so many great sluggers before you — will get over it and come back.

This and previous research also indicates a couple of things managers can do to help their stars, both before and after a loss of status:

  • Praise them for working hard — not for achieving great outcomes or for “being smart.” Well-known research by Carol Dweck found that children who were praised for their hard work and their process were more resilient and took more risks than children who were praised for innate intelligence or “getting it right.”
  • At review time, look at the sum of their performance — not the mean. A mistake most of us make is taking the average of another person’s skills so that, for instance, if you tell me you are fluent in Chinese, English, and French, and know a little bit of German, I will actually judge you more harshly than if you’d just left out the German. As a manager, resist this urge.
  • Or, as Marr and Thau suggest, just give your star a break after she’s bungled something or lost face. Help her regain her status by letting her know that you value her work.

 

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 2/11/2014.

View our complete listing of Career Development, Leadership Development, and Talent Management blogs.

     

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