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Why Top Performers Quit When the Going Gets Tough

It’s good to be on top — as long as things are going well. But new research from Wharton operations, information and decisions professors Maurice Schweitzer and Katherine Milkman shows that when the going gets tough, top performers often run for the exit. It turns out the embarrassment of not meeting expectations can sometimes be too much to bear. The paper, “Quitting: The Downside of High Performance Expectations,” was co-authored by Hengchen Dai, Berkeley Dietvorst and Bradford Tuckfield. Schweitzer and Milkman spoke with Knowledge@Wharton about their research and its implications for companies and organizations.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s start out by discussing the ideas behind this paper — how favorites and underdogs behave when the going gets tough.

Maurice Schweitzer: When people decide to persist or to quit, it turns out that there’s a lot of psychology in that process. We wanted to look at whether it’s an advantage or disadvantage to be a favorite versus an underdog.

In general, there are a lot of positive benefits to having high expectations. When we set high expectations, people generally perform at higher levels. But in competitions, when you’re the favorite and you begin to encounter some difficulty, that’s more threatening than if you’re the underdog. What we found essentially is this: When the going gets tough, favorites are more likely to quit.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is that true at any time during the competition, or does that apply to a specific point in the competition?

Katherine Milkman: We suspect that it’s true at any time in the competition. We studied this in two different domains, which gives us some confidence that this generalizes. One was in men’s professional tennis, with a data set of about 300,000 men’s professional tennis matches over more than a decade. We also studied this in a laboratory environment, where we brought people in to compete in a trivia competition — something entirely different than professional tennis. In both contexts, what we saw is that when people were expecting to perform well, when they were the favorite in a competition, and then they faced some sort of setback or negative news about their performance, their likelihood of quitting spiked.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are the practical implications of this research for business?

“When the going gets tough, favorites are more likely to quit.” –Maurice Schweitzer

Schweitzer: I think in general we want to see people persist, and in both the settings that we examined, there were real costs to quitting. People were essentially paying to avoid the embarrassment of persisting in the face of bad news. I think that there are broad managerial implications of this. We have to be very careful when we have high performers with high expectations. When they encounter setbacks, as managers we have to be very mindful of how threatening that might be to self-image. We found a pretty substantial effect where this would drive people to quit when they might actually benefit should they persist.

Knowledge@Wharton: What was that substantial effect that you found?

Milkman: In the context of men’s professional tennis, what we saw is about a 20% increase in the rate at which tennis players walked off the court and said, “I have an injury and can’t continue,” when they were just barely favored to win versus just barely the underdog. Just flip the expectations in a match from a player being favored to win because they were ranked 100 and their opponent was ranked 101 in the world, versus the opposite. If I were ranked 101 and my opponent were ranked 100, I’m not expected to win. We see this giant change in how likely you are to walk off the court under exactly the same match circumstances. You lose the first set, and being the underdog by that small amount increases the likelihood you stick it out. Whereas being the favorite, all of a sudden you say, “I’m throwing in the towel.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Is this psychology basically about embarrassment?

Schweitzer: Yes, we found that exactly to be the mediator. The mechanism that we identify is embarrassment. We conducted some interviews of tennis players and found that they were concerned about these psychological effects. It’s not fun, when you’re the favorite, to experience that loss in a very public way. We found a similar thing in our experiments where we measured it directly. In fact, it was embarrassment that was really capturing a lot of this action.

Knowledge@Wharton: Companies shouldn’t assume that high performers are going to rise to the cause. If they stumble out of the gate on a project, does that take more attention and delicate management?

Milkman: That’s exactly what the key implication really is. People who expect great things are going to have more trouble with adversity, and we don’t focus on that in the past literature. That has not been something people noted, and we think it’s really important to shine a light on that.

Knowledge@Wharton: Did you suspect this conclusion and go looking for it, or did it pop out while you were looking for something else?

Milkman: We had an intuition that we might see this in this context, and we thought there was something missing in prior research. Prior research had told a very clear story about the benefits of being the favorite and all of the things that come with that. We felt like there was something missing from that narrative.

“People who expect great things are going to have more trouble with adversity.” –Katherine Milkman

In a previous life, I played tennis very seriously. I was a varsity athlete in a Division 1 school and played tennis there. I have this background in this sport, and this is something I remember very vividly from a childhood spent on tennis courts: how incredibly challenging it was to be the favorite, how unpleasant it was to walk on the court with that burden that you’re expected to walk off with a victory, how many people were expecting that of you and how tough it was when things went the other way. This seemed like a really nice place to make this point, where we would be able to potentially see in the data a major consequential decision that was moving, as a result of being the favorite, in the opposite of the predicted direction.

Knowledge@Wharton: It’s a bigger loss if you’re expected to win than if you’re expected to lose. Is it mostly internal pressure that people put on themselves, or is the outside pressure really there?

Schweitzer: Oh, I think it’s both. People have expectations for themselves, and when they don’t meet those, that’s one thing for them to contend with. When things are very public, there’s now a much larger psychological force that’s pushing down on them.

I think quitting is something that we haven’t explored much in the management literature, in psychology. When do people persist? When do they quit? I think this is a great environment to study it — men’s professional tennis. One reason why that’s so nice is because all of the outcomes and behaviors are so easy to observe, but I think it really has broad application.

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s talk about some of those broader applications.

Milkman: We often end up using sports to make different points about human behavior because of the nature of the big data that’s available so easily on sports. The key point of this paper is not that tennis players walk off the court when they’re favorites at a higher rate than when they’re underdogs and face the same setbacks. The point is that it’s challenging to have the pressure of the world on your shoulders in ways that we haven’t previously appreciated. When everyone is looking to you to always be a star, there’s something that comes with that that’s not so great. And we need to be much more mindful of that in organizations.

Knowledge@Wharton: There is a lot of discussion now about allowing failure in the workplace because innovation comes from trial and error. Would that be a helpful way for companies to manage this, especially with their high performers?

“We have to be very careful when we have high performers with high expectations.” –Maurice Schweitzer

Schweitzer: I think it’s really important to experience failure, to recognize that there are learning opportunities and that if we’re not failing, sometimes we’re not shooting high enough. I think we need a resilient culture, and our findings speak to that.

When people walk in with high expectations and they begin to falter and experience setbacks, they have two options. They could persist and try to grind it out, or they could take the easier route that might preserve their self-esteem, be less embarrassing, and exit. Particularly when things are public. I would add that in men’s professional tennis, the option to exit isn’t an easy one. You have to attribute that to an injury. In all of these cases, in the 20% jump that Katy mentioned before, people are claiming to be injured when, we suspect, sometimes they’re really not injured. That means people are willing to engage in some unethical behavior to exit.

Milkman: I think an important point that Maurice is making here is this is a situation where it’s actually quite tough to exit. The exit cost is high. You have to lie publicly about something.

Imagine an organizational context where the decision to persist is not as challenging. You can walk off any day and say, “Let’s end this project. It’s not going well.” A lot of the time, it’s easier to be a quitter than in [the tennis] context. We might see even larger effects. We see huge effects even in the setting where there’s a very specific definition of what is allowable for quitting: It has to be a medical reason. We still see a 20% boost as a result of the psychological phenomenon.

Just imagine you’re in an organization and people are making investment decisions, and they can quit because they don’t feel like this is the right direction to go. No justification is really needed beyond that. You might see dramatically larger rates at which this is a problem.

Knowledge@Wharton: You mentioned that there are ways to quit that aren’t quite as dramatic as it would be on national television for a tennis match. Some people might request a transfer to another department.

“When everyone is looking to you to always be a star, there’s something that comes with that that’s not so great.” –Katherine Milkman

Schweitzer: You see this with politicians when they have some early survey data that’s looking like things aren’t going well. You often see some politicians say, “Oh, I need to spend more time with my family.” But I think what Katy was speaking to is that we often have options, for example, that allocate our time differently, and there could be much lower hurdles to shifting our allocation in a way that reflects this kind of quitting.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is the bookend to this that people with lower expectations outperform? In other words, did you find any connection with the other group?

Milkman: Not really. I think the way of thinking about this is not that it’s great to be an underdog, because the truth of the matter is that it is, on average, really better to be a favorite. They win at a higher rate. What it’s highlighting is a challenge that was previously unappreciated, which is this humiliation factor, if you will. You have this burden of public image and internal image management that can lead to some perverse things happening, like wanting to get out of the limelight if things aren’t going well. But in general there are many benefits to being the favorite over being the underdog, and so high expectations are good. They just have this caveat that’s unappreciated in past research.

Knowledge@Wharton: Where will you go next in your research?

Schweitzer: I think the question of quitting and persistence is a really broad and important one. We know that persistence is what it takes to move a mountain, to get things done. It’s people who are tenacious who end up being very successful. At the same time, we know that there are times when we should be stopping and reallocating our resources. I think we haven’t really grasped when we should quit, when we should persist, and what should be guiding those decisions. There’s a lot of interesting psychology around that, and I think there are many open questions.

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