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1 Sep 2011

Correlation between Excellent Performers and Flattened Growth

As people’s careers progress, they tend to become more risk adverse, less willing to accept challenges. Much is because they feel they have too much to lose if wrong. Enough of these people in a company can retard its growth and our own too. Awareness of their existence will help to protect us.

In “The Paradox of Excellence,” an article in the June 2011 of the Harvard Business Review, Thomas DeLong and Sara DeLong write “high performers often let anxiety about their performance compromise their progress” even to the point that they “would rather do the wrong thing well than do the right thing poorly.” As a result, they tend to prefer options that worked well in the past to those that are best.

Early in their careers, things might have come more easily to them. As they progress and tackle more difficult assignments, they begin to function more and more on the outskirts of their attributes and skills. Rather than expand those limits they consolidate their gains, preferring consensus over what is right. As the Delongs attest, their careers flatten.

However, enough of this excellence in the right positions will flatten the company’s growth too. This conservatism will affect budget decisions, product development and talent acquisition. Expense control supersedes investing; existing products supersede new ones; the proven candidate supersedes the game changer. It helps to explain how the best and the brightest can bring about demise.

If we work for such people, the expansion of our limits could slow too. The challenges we seek will be thwarted by the conventional. It’s important to realize their existence and to avoid being blinded by their excellence and allowing our talents to rot under their light.


2 Responses

  1. What you say seems to fit the ‘Peter Principle’ of people being promoted to their level of incompetence, and then being a block.

    I’ve also observed the opposite: people who have over time become extremely skilled being very open to new ideas, whereas newbies are still defending the time and money they put into their education and don’t want it questioned.

    Is this a question of temperament, I wonder? Or is the second scenario limited to jobs where tacit knowledge plays a big part?

    1. Mike Lehr

      Yes, temperament plays a major role, Marilyn. Your second scenario is also valid. The business culture also plays into it. A growth-oriented one is going to promote more of what you mention than a play-it-safe one. With all of these, it’s easy to generalize. I prefer to look at several factors rather than relying upon just one. There are more too. The point of this post is to raise awareness of this particular one as part of an overall talent assessment.

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