Kellogg Insight, a website dedicated to featuring new research by Kellogg school faculty, recently described the work of Julio González-Díaz, Olivier Gossner and Brian W. Rogers. They conducted a study to examine the question:
"In sports, some athletes are known as “clutch players” who consistently perform well under pressure; in the business world, an individual may gain a reputation for maintaining composure and good judgment in the most trying circumstances, ultimately contributing to their organization’s success. Does this ability to “rise to the occasion” differ measurably across individuals?"
Fans of baseball may be aware that sabermetrics experts (such as Bill James) have studied this question for years. Most of them have argued that there is no such thing as "clutch" players in baseball. These statistical experts have argued that most players perceived by fans as "clutch performers" don't necessarily perform better in crucial situations. More recently, some studies have shown that "clutch performers" may exist.
In this research, the authors focused on tennis. They looked at point-level data over a twelve year period. They wanted to know if some players had "high critical ability" - i.e. did they consistently perform well on the most important points? Here is what they found:
"First, players differed “significantly and substantially” in their critical abilities, and these capabilities were important in explaining point outcomes—that is, players with greater critical ability were more likely to win important points than their opponents. Moreover, critical ability was correlated moderately with serving and returning capabilities. Critical ability was also linked with players’ ratings on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) points system over the 12-year period studied. Critical ability’s correlation with ATP rating was about as strong as the link between returning ability—a crucial skill—and ATP rating. The relationship between critical ability and career success remained even when the researchers accounted for players’ experience levels. For the average professional tennis player, the study found that the impact of improving critical ability on ATP rating is 41 percent that of improving their serve, arguably the most important factor in the sport."
What is the implication for leaders in the business world? Naturally, if we could identify "high critical ability," that would be of immense value. Unfortunately, management does not lend itself to the kind of quantitative analysis performed by these scholars with regard to tennis players. Moreover, we know from many baseball studies that our eyes can deceive us. Many players regarded as clutch by fans do not actually perform better statistically in important situations over a lengthy period of time (i.e. a player might perform better in the clutch one year, but not the next in many instances). These celebrated players often simply have had some highly memorable moments where they came through in the clutch... and thereby have been labeled as extraordinary in high stakes situations. For leaders, the lesson is beware of drawing sweeping conclusions based on one or two isolated moments of greatness in the clutch. However, don't dismiss the notion of high critical ability entirely. Apparently, at least in tennis, clutch performers do exist.