Article | Harvard Business Review | June 2011

The Paradox of Excellence

by Thomas J. DeLong and Sara DeLong


Why is it that so many smart, ambitious professionals are less productive and satisfied than they could be? We argue that it's often because they're afraid to demonstrate any sign of weakness. They're reluctant to ask important questions or try new approaches that push them outside their comfort zones. For high achievers, looking stupid or incompetent is anathema. So they stick to the tasks they're good at, even while the rest of the organization may be passing them by. In short, they'd rather do the wrong thing well than do the right thing poorly. They get stuck in this unproductive and unfulfilling pattern and can't break free. Of course, leaders in organizations bear some of the blame for this type of play-it-safe mind-set. They don't always want to hear that a person is struggling, nor do they necessarily reward risk taking, even though they might pay lip service to innovative initiative. The authors outline several steps that individuals can take to shake off fear and paralysis, including looking at past negative experiences from somebody else's point of view and seeking out safe ways to allow themselves to become vulnerable.

Keywords: Employees; Innovation and Invention; Strength and Weakness; Performance Productivity; Risk and Uncertainty; Motivation and Incentives; Satisfaction;


DeLong, Thomas J., and Sara DeLong. "The Paradox of Excellence." Harvard Business Review 89, no. 6 (June 2011).