WFH lacks the co-action effect — improved showing in the midst of colleagues
Dhoni would have won us two of the three matches we lost so far in IPL had there been a typical full house crowd, lamented a CSK fan. No other person can handle the close finish pressures like Mahi, he argued. Similarly, many of my friends have felt that Kohli would perform differently in front of a packed stadium with cheering fans. I am trying to make sense of this argument and relate it to the world of work, where the talk is more about engagement and less about the pressures that bring out the best in people. But, let us admit the fact that anxiety and audience bring out the best in some of us at work too.
Most sales organisations thrive on pressure. Some create the atmosphere through systems and processes; many others through their leaders’ behaviours. We used to dread meetings with our sales head when he had the mike. He used to call out in front of 50 other people the mediocre performances. However, many of us came back with stronger performances the next quarter. Of course, many of us were performing in anticipation of incentives, increments, and promotions too. But my sense of those days was that more people were worried about keeping their jobs and losing their face in front of a crowd than motivated by rewards and recognition.
The price of pressure
Wall Street assesses IPO-bound CEOs on their ability to handle pressure. Stanford professor Elizabeth Blankespoor’s study of 224 pre-IPO roadshows assessed how CEOs were perceived in terms of competence and attractiveness and the impact it had on the final IPO pricing. At these roadshows, the leaders don’t really share more than what is in the prospectus. Yet, fund managers and analysts jostle for seats at these events. They don’t come there for breakfast, but to assess the CEO’s competence, mainly how they handle the audience. These seem to make a difference in the initially proposed price and the revised final offer price. The study said a 5 per cent increase in perception scores of the CEO yields an additional 11 per cent boost in the final market price. Oh! That’s some crowd pressure on the CEO!
Templates of pressure
Everyone responds to pressure in varying degrees. Customers, competitors, bosses, colleagues, all of us. Is there a systematic way of creating it? Daily dashboards, unachievable targets, unreasonable deadlines, intimidating townhalls, team reviews, customer NPS scores, annual awards, competitor market share, are some enterprise tools used to create pressures of different kinds on multiple people.
Even simple group emails can create stress on people. Picture this: our boss used to send a monthly performance note to all his team members. If we did not find a mention in his message, we knew we were in trouble. So till his next monthly note, we used to work our back off to get the right side of his attention. His template was a public secret, and he used that pretty well.
Psychologists and Sociologists have long studied “Social Facilitation” as one of the keys to performance. Social Facilitation rides on the primary impact of “Co-Action Effect” and “Audience Effect”. Their relevance is high in the current WFH and No-Audience contexts. The Co-action effect is when task performance increases by the mere presence of others doing the same task. Physically it’s about how 100-metre sprints are timed best when run against someone. Cognitively it’s about how a higher work accomplishment happens; your library versus working at home where it is equally quiet. Enterprises revelling in the cost-effectiveness of WFH could well be losing out on the advantages of the Co-Action effect. After all, worker ants were individually found to dig three times more sand per ant when working alongside peers, though not digging as a team!
Pressure at work comes in different forms. Much of it comes from expectations set by ourselves or by our bosses or the systems of the organisations.There are no prizes for just turning up anymore in the WFH world. It is now the world of delivering to the expectations. This can cause more stress than before as we are all second-guessing each other about how we are being judged. Neuroscientists who study high-performing athletes and professionals have found that the most successful deliver most under mild stress.
However, in the workplace, we refuse to acknowledge the positive impact of expectations.
First published by The Hindu Business Line on October 7, 2020