Are You Trapped by Your Own Excellence?

Last Updated Jun 14, 2011 12:20 PM EDT

Many incredibly talented professionals are caught in a trap that keeps them from moving forward.

It's the "Paradox of Excellence" as Harvard Business School professor Thomas DeLong and his daughter, psychiatrist Sara DeLong, term it. The problem begins because these individuals are afraid to admit weakness to others. They've always been promoted, admired, and consulted because of their stellar track records, so now they kick back against trying new approaches that might dislodge them from their comfort zones.

"Many high performers would rather do the wrong thing well than do the right thing poorly," the authors write in the Managing Yourself: The Paradox of Excellence, in the June issue of Harvard Business Review. "And when they do find themselves in over their head, they're often unwilling to admit it, even to themselves, and refuse to ask for the help they need."

At this point a career tend to flatline, weighed down by an unwillingness to take chances and innovate. Our former high-fliers now get stuck doing the same thing over and over -- the organization passes them by.

To get past these limitation, DeLong and Delong recommend several alternative exercises that involve self-reflection:

  1. Past to present. "One exercise we use successfully with our clients can help you distinguish between reality and perception, with regard to both your own past behavior and the way your organization responds to honesty and risk taking. Think about a time when you tried something new and were disappointed with the result. Why did you take the assignment on? Why did you struggle? Did you ask for help? Did your perception of your performance match that of your colleagues? Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently? Write down in two columns the similarities and the differences between a risk you are currently contemplating and that past negative experience. Identifying the key differences will make it easier to move forward."
  2. Outside looking in. "Think of a risk you took that went badly and rewrite the story from another person's perspective. Let's say you obsess about a longtime customer who signed on for an engagement from your firm's fledgling consulting division but then suddenly backed off and switched his business to a competitor. He's a liar and a jerk; he made a fool of you. Now put yourself in his shoes and retell the story: Maybe his boss made some unexpected demands or his company had to revisit cost or feature trade-offs. You don't have to believe that version, but acknowledging that a credible alternative perspective exists is a reminder that it's not just about you."
  3. Just the facts. "Another simple but surprisingly effective strategy is to write down what happened in a difficult interpersonal interaction -- one page should suffice -- and then read it over, underlining just the facts. You will find that there are only a handful of underlined phrases -- the rest is pure interpretation. The point is that when you shift the way you view a painful interaction, you can begin to put the past behind you."
Another way to get past the past is to ask for guidance from your network of peers, mentors, and experts.

Think a bit about your own career. Are you stuck in one spot? Has your past brilliance made you uncomfortable with taking risks. This post offers excellent insights and tips that will help you break out of your performance box.

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(Photo by Flickr user nicubunu.photo, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.