When comparing two star employees up for the same promotion, it's commonly assumed that the lower-ranked one might have more intrinsic incentive to take down the higher-ranked one. Actually, the opposite is true, according to a recent study conducted by Robert Lount, an assistant professor at Ohio State University's Fisher School of Business, and Nathan Pettit, a doctoral student at Cornell University.
The results found that, across multiple studies, higher status groups will actually work about 30 percent harder when competing against lower status groups.
"To whom one is being compared matters a lot in terms of effort," says Pettit. "It's not just the presence of a comparison [to another group], but rather, the status of one's comparison partner has significant implication for the amount of effort that will be put forth."
Petit notes that members of a team also understand the implications of performing better or worse than another specific team. For example, being outperformed by a lower status group could negatively affect the standing of individuals within a specific team, but being outperformed by a higher status group is merely a reflection of the status quo and would not result in a loss of standing for any team members.
The research goes against the conventional wisdom that underdogs have more motivation to knock top dogs off their pedestals.
In total, the researchers conducted five studies involving college students. In most of the studies, the students were asked to complete a simple task such as crossing out as many vowels as possible in a string of letters in a given amount of time. They were also told that a rival school was completing the task at the same time, with the logos of both schools clearly displayed on the worksheets to signify a competition. In different cases, the rival school was either ranked higher than, lower than, or equal to the participants' school.
Students generally did not perform any worse when they were competing against higher-ranked versus similarly ranked schools, but it was only when lower-ranking schools were introduced that a noticeable improvement in effort was apparent.
Another interesting finding was that when students competing against a lower-status group were asked to list either an individual or a group affirmation before completing their team tasks, they generally did not complete as much of the team task as those who did not write an affirmation.
"Affirmations neutralize feelings of threat," says Pettit. He explains that as students are thinking of aspects of their group membership that affirm the psychological value of their group, it acts as a buffer against their need to dominate the lower status group.
Students in the study who competed against higher ranked teams did not show any difference in the amount of task they completed, regardless of whether they wrote affirmations or not.
In terms of applications for the workplace, organizations with strong insular cultures with which individuals self-identify might also cause them to work harder on behalf of maintaining their group's status.
Within companies, "managers may want to carefully consider creating performance comparisons between groups of different statuses as a potential way of eliciting increases in effort," says Pettit. Though he notes that, within the context of this study, the tasks were very simple, and the status differences were only slight to moderate.
He also adds that coaches and managers can be strong motivating forces that can motivate effort "above and beyond the mere status of the comparison."