But new research suggests that for some top performers, when the going gets tough -- they quit.
Wharton professors Maurice Schweitzer and Katherine Milkman find that it's usually a good thing to set high expectations, because you generally rise to meet them. But, they also discovered that if you're tapped to be a favorite to win in a competition -- and you run into some difficulty -- you're more likely to quit.
"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," Schweitzer says.
At the root of this quitting is embarrassment. It's not fun to be thought of as a high performer and then fear that you're going to miss your sales quota or not come up with the next big thing. So, when great employees run into trouble, they may need more support from managers.
"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," Milkman says. "When everyone is looking to you to always be a star, there’s something that comes with that that’s not so great."
To avoid such problems, a company can be more supportive of failure. In other words, it's not the end of the world if a project doesn't work out, and it can be just as valuable for a top performer to make the call that a project needs to be abandoned and not waste any more time or resources. If these top performers feel like they're about to face humiliation, they may simply leave their department or company, citing the need for a fresh start or more time with their families.
The truth, however, is that they don't want to deal with the embarrassment that comes from possibly missing their goal. That's why it's important that leaders stop thinking that top performers don't need the same kind of coaching and support as other workers and instead help superstars become more resilient.