The Effect of Tactical Performance


Performance is performance, right?

According to “Primed to Perform,” there are actually two types of performance: tactical and adaptive.

Tactical performance is how well someone executes the plan in place. Adaptive performance is the ability to divert from the plan and adapt.

The authors of “Primed to Perform,” Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor, shared that there are three negative effects that happen when a company focuses too much on tactical performance:

The Distraction Effect

Studies have shown that if a job requires only tactical performance — execute the plan — then indirect motives like economic pressure can do the job of increasing performance. However, when the job requires one to adapt, indirect motives can decrease performance.

For example, the authors suggested asking some of your staff to solve a math problem while standing, each sitting down once they individually solved it. Emotional pressure will get to the staff that are still standing, and their ability to solve the problem will decrease.

Basically, “The further the motive from the activity, the more distracted the subject.”

The Cancellation Effect

Subjects were divided into two groups in a stopwatch challenge. The first was rewarded with $2.20 every time they stopped the stopwatch within +/- .05 milliseconds of the five-second mark. The second group was told they’d simply receive a sum of money at the end of the experiment for their participation.

The two groups were then put in a waiting room during a break. “Strangely enough, the no-reward group practiced more than twice as much as the reward group during their first trip to the break room,” wrote the authors. “You’d think that the reward group would have been more motivated to practice, but that wasn’t the case. The reward had canceled out their persistence.”

It seems that “performance-based rewards tend to cancel out the natural sense of play,” which is a powerful direct motivator in total motivation.

The Cobra Effect:

In the 1800s, the city of Dehli in India was full of cobras. A plan was put in place to pay bounties for dead cobras. All was well for a moment.

Then someone got the idea to have a cobra farm, kill the cobras and turn them in for the bounty. When the city realized what was going on, they stopped paying for dead cobras. No longer able to make money from cobras, the farmers released the snakes. And thus, the cobra population increased in Dehli. Sounds counter productive, doesn’t it?

This is what happens when a company rewards the wrong thing. While Delhi rewarded dead cobras, the city actually wanted fewer living ones. “The same thing happens in companies that incentivize narrow metrics such as revenue or ‘employee satisfaction.’ Too often the side effects and unintended consequences are worse than the problem they were trying to solve,” shared the authors.

Now that you know these three effects, are they prevalent in your business? And if so, how are you going to address them?

Heather is the editor for Box Pro Magazine. Contact her at