Article | Harvard Business Review | April 2012

Coming Through When It Matters Most

by Heidi K. Gardner


All teams would like to think they do their best work when the stakes are highest-when the company's future or their own rests on the outcome of their projects. But too often something else happens. In extensive studies of teams at professional service firms, I have seen the same pattern emerge over and over: teams become increasingly concerned with the risks of failure rather than the requirements of excellence. As a result, they revert to safe, standard approaches instead of delivering original solutions tailored to clients' needs. I have named this phenomenon "the performance pressure paradox." Here's how it develops: as pressure mounts, team members start driving toward consensus in ways that shut out vital information. Without even realizing it, they give more weight to shared knowledge and dismiss specialized expertise, such as insights into the client's technologies, culture, and aspirations. The more generically inclined the team becomes, the more concerned the client grows, which turns up the pressure and pushes the team even further down the generic road. But forewarned is forearmed. By measuring each person's contribution deliberately, ruthlessly insisting that no one's contribution be marginalized, and framing new information within familiar contexts, teams can escape the performance pressure paradox and keep doing their best work when it matters most.

Keywords: Groups and Teams; Projects; Performance Expectations; Failure; Risk and Uncertainty; Safety; Experience and Expertise; Knowledge Sharing;


Gardner, Heidi K. "Coming Through When It Matters Most." Harvard Business Review 90, no. 4 (April 2012).