Relative performance information and social comparisons: Exploring managers' cognitive, emotional and dysfunctional behavioral processes

Emma Carroll*, David Marginson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


We explore the cognitive and emotional processes which manifest as a result of social comparisons involving relative performance information. We also explore how and why these processes may invoke dysfunctional behaviors. We mobilize social comparison theory and affective events theory to guide our study. We gather our data from a qualitative field study of a retail organization. Regarding cognitive processes, we find that, faced with a range of relative performance information, managers contemplate and select the most meaningful measurement comparisons for them. Managers also contemplate whether they can influence and attain their selected measures of relative performance. Such contemplation vis-à-vis leaderboard thresholds shape managers' emotions and dysfunctional behaviors. We conclude that perceived control over performance outcomes appears important in understanding how and in what ways social comparison effects unfold. We further conclude that social comparison processes push managers towards continuing performance improvements, even in the context of target achievement. Counterintuitively, perhaps, this effect may not always be organizationally desirable.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100768
Number of pages15
JournalManagement Accounting Research
Early online date3 Sep 2021
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We are grateful to Thomas Ahrens (associate editor), Alice Bryer, Chris Chapman, Mark Clatworthy, Robert Obermaier (discussant), Wim Van der Stede, and two anonymous reviewers, as well as workshop and conference participants at the University of Bristol, University of Exeter, the 16th Annual Conference for Management Accounting Research (ACMAR) and the 2019 AAA Management Accounting Section midyear meeting whose comments provided useful suggestions for improvement. We would also like to thank the managers at 'Grocer,' who contributed to this study.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier Ltd


  • Relative performance information
  • Dysfunctional managerial behavior
  • Perceived outcome controllability
  • Social comparison theory
  • Affective events theory


Dive into the research topics of 'Relative performance information and social comparisons: Exploring managers' cognitive, emotional and dysfunctional behavioral processes'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this