When Deadlines are Guidelines, Everyone Wins: Papers We’re Reading, Week 17

December 17, 2021  |  By: Irrational Labs

“Deadlines just aren’t real to me until I’m staring one in the face.”

Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief

We all know what it feels like to be down to the wire on a deadline—not great. While deadlines can help with overcoming procrastination, they also create stress and can force individuals to compromise on the quality of their work. So, how do we get the benefits of deadlines without the drawbacks? Easy—have supervisors set deadlines to motivate their employees, but also allow employees to request an extension when needed. 

This sounds great in theory, but even when a deadline is fairly arbitrary, you might still fear what people, especially your supervisor, will think. Using time efficiently is considered a valued workplace skill, and a sign of competence. A new paper by Ashley Whillans, Jaewon Yoon, and Grant Donnelly, explores this tension, through the following hypotheses: 

  • Hypothesis 1: Employees will avoid requesting a deadline extension, even when they recognize that the deadline is adjustable, and even when an extension could improve the quality of their work, out of the belief that the request will make others see them as incompetent.
  • Hypothesis 2: People who request a deadline extension will overestimate how incompetent they will appear to the requestee. Employees’ overestimation is partially explained by underestimating how much their manager cares about the quality of their task performance vs. the speed of their work.
  • Hypothesis 3: Introducing formal policies will mitigate self presentation concerns. When formal policies exist that normalize deadline extension requests, people will experience lower self presentation concerns and be more likely to request a deadline extension.

To test these hypotheses, the researchers ran five studies: 

Study 1A: Self-presentation concerns and deadline extension requests

Participants on MTurk were told they worked for a fictional publishing company, and asked to describe a complex image for two minutes, with the goal of describing as many events in as much detail as possible. All participants were given the opportunity to request a deadline extension. By clicking a button labeled, “I need more time,” they were immediately granted an extra minute. 

Another participant would act as their supervisor and assess their competence based on their performance, awarding them a bonus if they did a good job (on a scale 1-7). 

  • In the high self-presentation concern condition, participants were told that if they had requested a deadline extension, their supervisor would be notified of the request. These participants requested a deadline 22.6% of the time. 
  • In the low self-presentation concern condition, participants were told that their supervisor would not be notified of the deadline extension request. These participants requested a deadline 32.9% of the time. 

The researchers measured the total length of the description and number of events described. Participants who asked for more time on the task performed objectively better—writing longer descriptions and describing a higher number of events.

Study 1B: Supervisors do not judge employees who request deadline extensions as less competent

In this study, researchers flipped participants’ roles. Here, they described the first task (Study 1a) and new participants were told that as the supervisors, their job was to evaluate the work of one randomly selected employee. To do this,they were given

  • The image description task submitted by the employee
  • Whether the employee requested a deadline extension (though this information was provided independent of whether they actually did to hold average quality constant across conditions)
  • A third-party rating of the employee’s performance

Supervisors then evaluated the employee’s competence compared to the average employee, on a scale of 1-7. Supervisors rated employees as similarly competent regardless of whether they learned that the employee had requested an extension. In most cases, they rated those who had actually asked for an extension as more competent based on the quality of their work. 

Study 2: Employees under-request deadline extensions

To test their hypotheses outside of MTurk, the researchers recruited 200 employees and 203 supervisors. Participants were told to imagine having an interaction with their supervisor or one of their employees (respectively). 

In the scenario, they were told that they had assigned, or been assigned, a task that was due the next day, and the report requested a deadline extension. All participants were then asked to:

  • Respond to 6 statements about perceived competence, which they each answered from their own perspective (e.g. “When I requested an extension, my manager judged me as less competent” versus “When this employee requested an extension, I judged them as less competent.”) Employees reported greater concerns that extension requests signaled incompetence as compared to supervisors.
  • Imagine that they were in this scenario in their actual life, and completed four statements about their intentions to ask for—or provide—a deadline extension. Employees reported lower intentions to ask for more time as compared with managers’ intentions to provide an extension. 
  • Report the extent to which they felt that the request would (1) let down their team, (2) let down their manager, (3) burden their team, and (4) burden their manager; supervisors answered these same questions from their perspective. Employees’ competence concerns partially explained their lower intentions to ask for more time relative to managers’ willingness to grant employees more time.
  • Answer two questions about whether, in this scenario, the supervisor would care more about the speed or quality of the work. Employees overestimated how much their managers cared about the speed of their work, and underestimated how much their manager cared about the quality. 

Study 3: Removing self-presentation concerns to increase extension requests

The researchers ran an MTurk study identical to study 1a, but with one added, formal policy condition. Here, participants were told that if they requested a deadline extension, their supervisor would be told: “Note: The formal policy of this assignment allowed people to request more time to work on the task.”

Participants in this condition asked for an extension at similar rates (28.8%) to those in the low self-presentation concern condition (29.2%). In this case, the formal policy reduced employees’ concerns that they’d make a bad impression.

Study 4: Real-world policy replication

The researchers conducted the same experiment with students in an undergraduate business course. They assigned two sections (same instructor) to different conditions. In both, students could ask for more time by asking the instructor for an extension before the assignment was due. In one section this was framed as a “formal class policy,” and in the other, it was not. 

Consistent with study 3, students were significantly more likely to request a deadline extension request from their instructor when the extension request was framed as a formal policy. Students in the “formal policy” condition wrote shorter emails asking their professor for an extension, and made requests closer to the deadline, suggesting they were less worried about their instructor’s impression. Students who asked for an extension also did better on the assignment. 


Requesting an extension on a tight, but adjustable deadline can reduce employee stress and improve performance. In spite of this, employees often won’t ask because they are worried about appearing incompetent— even when a deadline extension consistently leads to improved quality of work (which often matters more than speed). A formal policy allowing for deadline extensions encourages individuals to request one, and consequently, produces higher-quality work.

In short, flexible deadlines are good—but only if people feel secure enough to actually request one.

Whillans, Ashley V., Jaewon Yoon, and Grant Donnelly. “People Overestimate the Self-Presentation Costs of Deadline Extension Requests.” Art. 104253. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 98 (January 2022).

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