Going Above and Beyond Doesn’t Help You

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.”

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