A presidential candidate prepares for a major debate. A CEO faces a snag in a high-stakes negotiation. A pro football–team quarterback must complete a long pass to avoid losing the Super Bowl.

Each of these scenarios requires individuals to draw on their talents, experience, and instincts to achieve success, often against challenging odds. Most people recognize the roles of innate talent—whether in athleticism or quantitative skills—and practice in performance across settings and time. But also of importance is a person’s ability to overcome environmental and psychological factors to drive results in critical moments. 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? If so, can it be linked to career success?

Those questions inspired Brian Rogers, an associate professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at the Kellogg School of Management; Julio González-Díaz, a research fellow at University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain; and Olivier Gossner, professor at the London School of Economics and the Paris School of Economics, to study point-level data from 12 years of competition in the US Open professional tennis tournament. As hypothesized, they found that the “critical ability” to perform well when it matters most does indeed differ across individuals and can be linked to career success.

Impactful Moments
“We were interested in the idea of how people performed at critical moments in their careers,” Rogers says, pointing to examples of stock traders making big bets on the market and politicians preparing for crucial campaign speeches. “In most professionals’ lives, performance on a few exams or interviews can have a dramatic impact on career development.” A basic hypothesis would be that individuals exert maximal effort in all circumstances, regardless of stakes. “But we believed it’s not that simple,” Rogers says.

For example, people may have only limited physical and cognitive resources to expend in a given circumstance, career-related or otherwise, and their ability to allocate these resources will help determine their success. Similarly, high-stakes circumstances motivate some people to raise their performance levels while others “choke,” or allow anxiety to diminish performance. “We wanted to understand how the ability to handle stress-inducing factors at key moments differs across the population, and how that ability links to career success,” Rogers says. Individuals who can adjust their performance optimally to high-stakes situations should outperform others overall. Rogers and his colleagues call it “critical ability.”

Rogers and colleagues wished to study critical ability with real-world data that could yield more applicable findings than data from laboratory-based studies. “We didn’t necessarily start with the idea of using sports data,” Rogers says. “But we recognized that the stakes are very high for professional athletes, and despite their training, their performance in critical moments varies from player to player.”

The authors focused on tennis because it yields point-level data, and because each point’s importance can be measured clearly—it is linked to the match’s outcome—and varies widely. In contrast to most previous performance-related research, Rogers and colleagues compared data for players competing against one another, allowing direct comparisons of the effects of pressure on performance and the calculation of relative critical ability. The researchers obtained point-level data for 12 years (1994–2006) of competition at the US Open, a “Grand Slam” tournament that is among the four highest-stakes international professional tennis contests. Based on the study’s hypotheses, players with a high critical ability should be more likely to win more important points in a match and should be ranked higher overall than players with low critical ability.

That is exactly what Rogers and his colleagues 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.

The Criticality of Critical Ability
Critical ability clearly matters at the individual level by enabling people to perform at their best when stakes are high. But why should critical ability matter at the organizational level? “If everyone in the world performs equally well in every circumstance, it wouldn’t matter whom you hire,” Rogers says. “But you want to select those who perform best in the most important circumstances, and people differ on this, based on their critical ability.”

Further, critical ability may be more important in some roles than others. Rogers notes that an elite strategy-consulting firm like McKinsey and Company may value critical ability more in its consultants than in its other staff, such as researchers and report-production team members, because the consultants face more high-stakes situations, such as client presentations. Similarly, critical ability should be an important factor in promotion decisions at McKinsey, as managers and partners face more frequent critical moments—often linked closely to future firm revenues—than entry-level consultants.

So where does critical ability come from? Rogers believes that both nature and nurture play a role in the development of critical ability, meaning individuals can enhance an innate level of critical ability through practice and other factors. “A tennis player’s natural talent for the game may peak midway through his career,” Rogers says, “but strong critical ability could allow him to play at a high level for the vast majority of his career.” Rogers hypothesizes that critical ability is correlated with self-confidence, as well.

A related question is whether people are aware of their critical abilities in different domains. In regard to professional tennis, Rogers says, “At that level of play, there’s plenty of analysis of stroke and footwork quality, but the less tangible dimensions, which include critical ability, are often what coaches get hired and fired over. So I believe people recognize critical ability’s importance.” He also notes that individuals are likely to perceive their critical ability as greater than it is, just as they do for other capabilities, from intelligence to interpersonal skills.

Future research on critical ability could illuminate performance factors in other settings, including business. For example, Rogers points out the benefits of comparing critical-ability findings for men and women, possibly again through a tennis-based analysis. Multiple hypotheses suggest gender differences in competitiveness, risk-taking, and other factors that could be related to critical ability and short- and long-term performance, including among business professionals. Other research could uncover the sources of critical ability, both innate and experiential. “Understanding the determinants of critical ability,” Rogers says, “will allow better prediction of which individuals will perform their best in high-stakes situations, a valuable asset to firms and to society as a whole.”

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