Going Above and Beyond Doesn’t Help You

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We’ve all had that job evaluation, right? The one where you get ranked along a scale, and “Meets Expectations” is in the middle of the scale, followed by “Exceeds Expectations” and “No, Seriously, This Person Demolishes Expectations?”

When you see a scale like that, you know that in this company “Exceeds Expectations” actually means “Meets Expectations.” There’s a certain sadness in this reconfiguration of the language, in the idea that you have to figure out what the secret expectations are and then meet them so you can be marked down as having exceeded the original expectations.

Because, according to a new study in Social Psychological & Personality Science, people really do just want you to meet the expectations. They don’t actually want you to exceed them.

I read about this study in The Atlantic this morning, and it rang true like a bell. Of course people don’t really want you to go above and beyond; the social contract goes much more smoothly when everyone does what they say they’re going to do, and when everyone does what’s fair. Or, to quote Atlantic author James Hamblin:

Imagine you’re a kid with a cookie and a friend who has no cookie. What happens if you eat it all? Your friend will be upset. What happens if you give all of it away? Your friend will like you a lot. What if you give away half the cookie? Your friend will be just about as happy with you as if you gave him the whole thing. His satisfaction is a pretty flat line if you give anything more than half of the cookie. People judge actions that are on the selfish side of fairness. Maybe because we denigrate do-gooders, or because we’re skeptical of too much selflessness, the research shows that, as Epley put it, “It just doesn’t get any better than giving half of the cookie.” 

The idea is that when we make social agreements, especially when they come in the form of promises, it’s best when we meet the agreement. Exceeding the agreement has little value.

I want to pull in another quote here, this time from Heather Havrilesky, aka Ask Polly:

If you start compulsively giving and giving and giving, that won’t do shit for you. It will only make you dislike everyone, and dislike yourself for not being someone who can give endlessly.

And, as I’ve found from personal experience, compulsively going above and beyond not only makes you dislike everyone, it makes everyone dislike you too.

Which brings us back to the workplace, where compulsively giving and giving is theoretically valued, and where “exceeds expectations” actually means “meets expectations.” What does this new study have to say about that?

According to The Atlantic, if you want to get noticed for “exceeding expectations,” you’re much better off if you make a promise and then keep it. In other words: don’t keep giving and giving and giving and hope somebody notices. Instead, make a promise with your supervisor or team member, and then keep your promise without going above and beyond. Don’t stay late every night and hope somebody is keeping track; pick a night, tell your boss “I’m going to finish the report this evening,” and finish it.

After all, to quote the study’s abstract: “Breaking one’s promise is costly, but exceeding it does not appear worth the effort.”



30 Comments / Post A Comment

Theestablishment (#7,469)

Since I can be internetly anonymous here, this is what managers really think.

Meets expectations – person can get by on a day to day basis but often needs to be hand-held through many things & new projects. Requires a fair amount of manager time such that the manager wishes she/he could replace said employee with someone better, but the issue isn’t so critical that it has to be done right now.

Exceeds expectations – person can generally figure stuff out on their own. Rarely needs manager help and only comes when there’s a pretty gnarly situation/question. Manager time investment in employee is limited and is reasonable considering the output. Manager is a big fan of the employee because she/he doesn’t make manager’s life harder than it really has to be.

Blows away expectations – employee is awesome. Never needs manager help but it smart enough to let manager know what is going on so manager isn’t blindsided by questions from management. Manager loves employee because she/he is basically giving manager a license to be lazy.

If you really want to exceed or to blow away expectations, don’t make your manager’s life harder than it has to be. Figure out ways to make your manager’s work-life easy and you’ll always do well. In fact, the highest compliment I can pay to people during performance reviews is “I appreciate you having you on my team because you make my life really really easy.”

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@Theestablishment THANK YOU FOR THIS.

garli (#4,150)

@Theestablishment That is like 100% contrary to how I have to give my reviews. We have a scale of 1-5 to rate people on. I am not allowed even for a second to give anyone a 5. I’m really not allowed to give out 4’s much either. You get rated on 12 different categories and if anyone has more than five 4’s I’m in trouble.

Of course if anyone has a 1 or a 2 they’re on the path to getting fired.

My husband’s (different company) reviews are the same. He’s not allowed to give out the top score.

The feeling from both of our evil overlords is that if you get the highest score you have nothing to reach for.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@garli That’s like getting an airplane seat that reclines and then being told you can’t use it.

garli (#4,150)

@HelloTheFuture So the correct answer is have a fist fight? I’m totally in.

NoName (#3,509)

@Theestablishment I always aim for “Exceeds Expectations”, because that’s my work comfort zone. If I’m “blowing away expectations” (by your definition here), I’m angling for a raise/promotion/transfer.

Goodie (#5,447)

@garli that sounds like my work. If you get too high or too low a score it gets moderated so everyone kinda ends up with the sameish score

Lily Rowan (#70)

@garli Yeah, my last job gave a whole elaborate song and dance about how the expectations there were REALLY HIGH, so someone who is excellent is meeting those expectations.

It’s tough for liberal arts types who are used to most people getting A’s.

@Lily Rowan : I personally enjoy the “you did a great job this year, and really went above and beyond, but our bonus pool got cut and we can’t give you a bonus, and if we rated you as ‘exceeds expectations,’ we’d have to give you a bonus, so we have to rate you as ‘meets expectations’.”

This is followed closely by my personal favorite, “Gosh, everyone in the department really pulled together this year and did an awesome job, but with this new stack ranking system, we have to rate at least x% of people as ‘underperforming’, and you’re it this year. Sorry, we’ll make it up to you next year!”

Lily Rowan (#70)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose WORST.

sony_b (#225)

@garli I worked for a company that gave no fives to give you something to reach for, which was then purchased by a company that scales more like TheEstablishment’s system. But my company also explicitly tells us that “reviews are not tied to raises and bonuses” – not kidding about that. So we do self rating, and I gave up and just give myself fives across the board and let my manager take me down a peg if he feels like he wants to.

I don’t know if I’d take that advice. For my current employer (and last 2 as well), lots of things are based on that single grade. My bonus is based partially on that ranking. All employees in my group, at my level are graded and bonus is doled out based on that grade. “Meets expectations” basically puts you on the bottom of the curve, you’re likely to get the scraps. “Exceeds some expectations” gets you a nice fat bonus and “Exceeds all expectations” is necessary to be considered for a promotion.

Anyone under meets expectations is pretty much first on the chopping block if numbers are bad and layoffs are imminent.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@forget it i quit Which part of the advice? I didn’t mean to say you shouldn’t shoot for Exceeds Expectations on your eval, only that this study suggests it’s best to make clear promises and complete them.

NoName (#3,509)

@HelloTheFuture I think you said it in the piece – under these rules, baseline expectations are to “exceed expectations”.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

I feel like I ought to quote the relevant section of the Atlantic piece so it’s absolutely clear:

“If I think you’re going to come in on Saturday, and you do, I’ll feel fine about it. It’s a little more than what you normally do. But if you, as an employee, promise your boss that you’ll come in on Saturday and then you do come in on Saturday, I will actually be happier than if I just expected it. I don’t get that fairness premium, that comes with a promise kept—that boost from recognizing you as a reliable and trustworthy person.”

andnowlights (#2,902)

@HelloTheFuture I come in about 1 Saturday a month to catch up on things I haven’t gotten around to (because I was too busy talking to my students, but that’s part of my job). I actually really LOVE coming in on Saturday because it’s just me in this giant building and I can get stuff DONE without anyone bugging me (including my husband). It’s nice alone time. Maybe I’m a little warped.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@andnowlights Clearly the solution is to tell your boss that you’re coming in, so you reap the benefits of a promise kept. :)

(And you’re not alone. When I last worked in an office, there were plenty of people who would come in over the weekend for that exact reason.)

sayevet (#6,237)

@HelloTheFuture What about jobs that don’t allow overtime but give you more work than you can handle? Admitting that you can’t keep up feels more like asking to be replaced rather than getting some help/attention. Asking for a friend…

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@deathcabforcutes oh dear, I am not particularly good at this type of advice, I would defer to one of the managers in this thread.

NoName (#3,509)

@deathcabforcutes Then you need to speak to HR/management. If they give you no recourse other than to work unpaid overtime, you have a legal problem.

Theestablishment (#7,469)

@deathcabforcutes consider your options. It never really hurts to ask for help, even if it’s just an extension of a deadline. You’d be surprised at how few deadlines can’t be moved. I don’t see an employee asking for more time as weakness because oftentimes as a manager, I know that I don’t have full visibility to everything that person has going on at any given point in time. And to be honest, I rarely have a full grasp of what getting those tasks done actually involves.

If deadlines can’t be moved, then consider your options. By sucking it up, you’re pretty much guaranteeing a life of misery with the potential that in your rush to get things done you make mistakes and deliver a subpar result. By asking for help, you open up the option that you’ll actually get help. I know this is easier to write than to actually believe, but if you work for a company/person who looks down on you for being gutsy enough to flag workload issues, then it might not be the place you want to stay for an extended period of time.

That said, there are smart ways to raise the question. Instead of “I can’t get this all done and need help”, it’s better to say “in order for me to do x, it likely requires y, which could take z time. Could we potentially extend the timing on this one or do you think we could reprioritize a, b, or c so I can focus on getting this one done?”

The former question is bad because it makes your managers life hard. You’re asking her to make the decision and to figure it out for you. The latter is preferable because it makes your manager’s life easy. you’re clearly laying out the issue, and then telling her exactly how the problem can be fixed. You’re not showing any weakness here, you’re just being very straightforward in laying out challenges that might stand in the way of delivering an excellent result. As a manager, I see this as a sign of a very mature individual who shows clear ownership for her work.

@deathcabforcutes I agree with @Theestablishment . One option is to merely phrase the query as clarifying priorities. Say “I have these 6 things on my to-do list but if I can’t get to them all, which three would you consider the most important?” Or “Can you give me some guidance in deciding which of these tasks I should focus on first?”

A good manager recognizes that you can’t finish every task instantaneously. Not being able to complete arbitrary amounts of work is not a failing, it just makes you human. The thing NOT to do is simply accept all the work requests (no matter how unreasonable) and then let some tasks randomly fall on the floor or miss deadlines. If you let people KNOW as soon as you realize that some tasks will need to be postponed, that will actually make you look good and on top of things. In making such a request it would help a lot if (a) you are routinely visibly productive – people can tell you’re getting SOMETHING done even if it’s not EVERYTHING, and (b) you *keep track* of how long tasks are taking and get really GOOD at estimating how long tasks in the queue are likely to take, so that when you say you will have those THREE (out of six) tasks done on time you can do so with confidence and seem reliable.

And now for an entirely orthogonal tactic:

The phrase “think smarter, not harder” is not actually the meaningless platitude you might think and it might well come into play here. If there is ANY aspect of your job that seems NEEDLESSLY time-consuming, keep in mind that part of your job is ALWAYS to figure out how to do your job better. So as you shift from “I try to do all the work somebody else assigns to me” to pushing back a little and deliberately scheduling your amount of work – “I know I can complete X amount of work in Y time, and anything beyond that might slip” – you should include in your time budget a small amount of time to work on making the work itself more efficient. How you do that depends on the exact task, but a few things to look at are:

– tools. Do you have all the tools you need at hand? Are they the best available versions of the tools? Having to stop to make copies or sharpen pencils or rearrange a workspace slows things down. Do you need to borrow scissors from the guy at the next desk when it’d be better to have your own scissors? Can those forms be partly filled out in advance or rearranged so you have all the needed information in one place? Can you get a computer program to automate some calculation? Can you get a big rubber stamp that adds the right legalese? If somebody built you a special fixture to hold the widgets during step X or installed a bookshelf/filing cabinet right next to your workspace or moved the recycling bin a little closer, would that save you any time?

– Permissions. Are you constantly having to wait to get an individual “okay” from a supervisor on small transactions? Do you need to find somebody else to log you in? Could those rules be modified such that in the normal case you can self-approve or self-login and only need approval in much rarer situations?

– assembly-line tactics. Can you break the task down into parts and do the parts in batches rather than linearly? If so, that is a HUGE WIN over constant task-switching. Instead of doing subtasks A B C A B C A B C you do A A A B B B C C C. Doing one sub-piece repeatedly makes you more efficient and gives you LOTS of ideas for simplification and automation.

– specialization of labor. Are there parts of your job that you love to do and do really efficiently? Are there other parts you dread that take *forever* and aren’t really in your wheelhouse anyway? Do you have a coworker who is better at and perhaps even *prefers* some of the parts of the job that you hate? If so, see if you can split up the task parts between you so that you’re doing more of the job that you like and they’re doing more of the job that they like.

– training. Would your job be easier if you read a book or attended a class on some subject related to it? Could your company BUY you that book or pay to SEND you to that training class?

More generally: as an overworked worker, there will be things that frustrate you. KEEP A LIST and periodically think about which of those frustrations are truly necessary parts of the job and which are just accidents of “the way things are done around here now” that nobody noticed could be improved on. Come up with concrete suggestions to fix those problems, think them through, write it up, and occasionally present your suggestions to management. Or if they’re easy enough, just implement them yourself. A true “meets expectations” worker merely does the job they were asked to do; a true “exceeds expectations” worker is the one who figures out how to do that job BETTER.

There’s a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” When I spend time working on making my work more efficient rather on doing the work itself, I refer to this as “axe-sharpening” time. Put in those terms, it’s hard for my manager to argue with it.

laluchita (#2,195)

At my last (and somewhat terrible) job we were ranked on a scale of 1-5, and only as I was literally in therapy because the constant negative feedback was destroying my self worth, did someone explain me that supervisors were not allowed to give out 5’s because there’s always room for improvement. So I was getting consistently evaluated as a 3.5 and my take away (for three years) was like, I’m working as hard as I can and am constantly getting a C+. And my supervisors feeling as that it was an almost a perfect score, but not telling me that. It just seemed really counterproductive and ultimately demoralizing to do things that way.

garli (#4,150)

@laluchita They never told how it really worked? That’s some bullshit.

jalmondale (#6,721)

If ‘Exceeds expectations’ means ‘large bonus/promotion’, most managers understand that and hand it out accordingly. So the goal is not to ‘exceed expectations’ literally. The goal is to make your manager think you deserve a bonus/promotion. The article suggests that one way to do that is to be incredibly reliable, and that matches up with my experience – someone where I can say ‘Hey, will you do X by Friday?’, they say ‘sure’, and then X is reliably done by Friday, that is an awesome person. Someone who just randomly does extra stuff? That’s great, but not as good.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@jalmondale THIS.

Vib G Yor (#3,566)

@jalmondale It’s weird, but is my workplace the only place that uses these criteria literally? We only have “meets,” “exceeds,” and something that = “doesn’t meet.” If you are totally reliable, do a good job, and are well-liked then you get a “meets.” You really do have to do something extraordinary to get “exceeds.” I think it’s because my team is full of amazing people who are all reliable and really good at their jobs, and management is not given the budget to give them all raises all the time. It’s great for the company but can end up pushing out good people who feel they aren’t being properly rewarded for their good work.

NoName (#3,509)

@Vib G Yor You sound lucky to work with those people

Theestablishment (#7,469)

Food for thought implied by the article…

If you really want to earn stellar ratings, don’t focus so much on what you’re doing. Focus more on how you’re doing it.

While the big corporate push over the past decade has been to define goals, etc. that are very deliverable oriented and tangible (e.g., produce report X and make sure it’s timely and accurate), these types of goals are relatively limiting. As implied by the article, it’s not worth it to try and produce the best report X you could possibly produce because at the end of the day, report X is report X.

It’s much easier to exceed expectations if you focus on how you’re producing report X. Can you find easier or faster ways to do it? Do you spend time reviewing the report for mistakes or irregularities before calling it final? Do you send the report with your thoughts on what it’s telling you or what you think might need to be done based on that information? These are the things that managers will really appreciate and that will get you noticed.

Simple example – two cooks work a line in a restaurant. Their base expectation is to produce a dish that looks and tastes a certain way and to get it on the pass when it’s needed. As long as both cooks get to the end result, they will both meet expectations.

The differentiating factor becomes when you look at how the cooks get there. If chef 1 works sloppy, creates more waste, and the chef constantly has to check his progress, you can be sure that he will never do more than meet expectations. If chef 2 works clean, is mindful of waste and efficiency, and the chef can trust that she will execute the dish without help, then it’s a good bet that chef 2 will be more highly regarded. Same end result but the difference is in how each person is getting there.

francesfrances (#1,522)

Really shouldn’t have read this right before my boss returned from vacation and told me all the things I did wrong while she was gone, rather than thanking me for all the things done right. And the worst part is she’s always right, but sorry, I’m not perfect. UGHHHHHH MICROMANAGING BOSSES ARE THE WORST.

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