No Good Deed Goes UnpunishedResearch Shows High Professional Performance Often Comes with Dissatisfaction

Employee looking at documents at the end of a long day in the office

There is a fascinating new paper published by Duke University researchers in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In the paper densely titled “The Burden of Responsibility: Interpersonal Costs of High Self-Control”, the research team looks at high performers (people characterize as having “high self-control”) and examine the impact of that display of competence on how others perceive them, how they perceive themselves and how that eventually affects their satisfaction and interpersonal relationships.

The studies show some interesting conclusions:

  • High performers tend to drive up expectations of peers, managers and spouses

  • Higher expectations often lead to greater work. In fact, several studies showed that work was unevenly distributed to the higher performers

  • Outside observers think that it “just comes easy” to them and don’t fully appreciate the effort involved in generating quality work. This often causes friction in the work-place

  • This also causes friction at home with their romantic partners as these individuals feel that they are asked to take on disproportionate work at the office and at home

If you have worked in a corporate environment, you are probably thinking — “they had to do a whole series of studies to find this? They could have just come to my office”. This isn’t a new phenomenon and is backed up by anecdotal evidence, but it’s a novel piece of research in demonstrating the effect is widespread.

So how should we deal with this in the modern work-place? The research paper fell short of definitive recommendations, but hypothesized that some of this comes from managers holding higher expectations and underestimating the effort that drives high quality work. They also suggest that although high performers felt fatigued and tired, they also potentially felt more valued and enjoyed the higher expectations further creating this feedback loop.

Our suggestions for addressing this

If you are a manager or in a position of authority, its important to be cognizant of this bias. Part of the solution is about finding roles for people that they excel at and reducing the “free-loader” syndrome. Part of it is by creating uniform standards, expectations, and review processes.

As a high performer, sometimes it is helpful to show people the effort you put in so it doesn’t appear as if it comes easy to you. Sometimes people discount effort that they don’t see, like your organizational skills, or the reading you do outside of work to stay prepared. Sometimes it’s important to make that process more visible so coworkers and managers have a visible sense of the effort it takes to create sustainable, quality output.

And sometimes, you just have to say “No”, and take that vacation.

This paper was also covered by The Atlantic in this excellent article here

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Advice Annie is a team of Tapwage writers and guest contributors who help answer career and workplace questions