The Performance Paradox
Chapter 1: The Performance Paradox
Big idea While it might seem counterintuitive, constantly performing does not improve our performance. The route to success is often not a straight line.
Anjali felt her palms grow sweaty every time her manager Salma asked, “Can I offer some feedback?”
“No!” She wanted to scream. “I’m already working as hard as I can!”
Indeed, she was, and since joining the company, she’d received positive feedback from managers and direct reports alike.
But she’d never had a manager who was also so up-front about areas where she could improve—and it was usually the logistical components of her job, which she rarely had time to stay on top of. Anjali viewed herself as an attentive, hands-on person who always put her customers first, and if she had to choose between taking a customer’s call and updating the company’s database, she’d pick the phone call 100 percent of the time.
Talking to Salma made her feel like a kid again, like she couldn’t get it right.
The next time Salma uttered that dreaded F-word—feedback—and started offering suggestions on how she could do things differently, Anjali couldn’t hold back. “I’m already working as hard as I can!”
After a brief but painful pause, Salma smiled at her.
“Anjali, no one wants you to work any harder. We want to figure out how we can make things easier for you.”
Anjali had never thought about it like that—she assumed all of the feedback was a veiled warning that her job was in jeopardy.
When the phone rang, Gino Barbaro always leaped to answer it.
If he saw a bartender or waiter reaching for the receiver, he would shoo them away; after all, this was his restaurant, his reputation, his name. At Gino’s Trattoria, if he wanted something done right, he needed to do it himself.
That’s how Gino approached pretty much everything at the restaurant. Each day his mind would bounce around to whatever needed to be done next—taking orders over the phone, managing the kitchen staff, ordering supplies and ingredients, cleaning, keeping on top of financial transactions, locking up at night.
He didn’t trust anyone to do these things as well as he would, and he didn’t have the time to train them.
During the 2008 recession, the restaurant started to lose money. Gino responded by putting in extra hours to make sure everything was executed “perfectly,” but it soon became apparent that that wasn’t enough to keep the restaurant afloat. After twelve years of seventy-hour weeks, he was exhausted and couldn’t envision working even harder to cut costs or promote the business to get out of this hole—there weren’t enough hours in the day to stop and think about what to try differently. Something had to change.
There had to be a way to run a business that didn’t leave him miserable, scrambling for time, and burnt out.
Douglas Franco was tapped by Peruvian investment firm Enfoca to change the trajectory of its new acquisition, iEduca, a Lima-based higher education company that offers courses for adults. The investment firm thought that a change in leadership would enable iEduca to grow faster.
Upon joining the company as CEO, Douglas observed that his new colleagues—especially those on the executive team—seemed to believe they were already optimizing the business. Douglas worried that this attitude was causing the company to stagnate and preventing the team from experimenting with new ideas.
To accelerate growth, iEduca would need to find new ways of doing things.
Frustrated and feeling pressure to deliver success to his investors, Douglas tried to encourage his new colleagues to think critically about opportunities for improvement. But his frustration was met with resistance. His team members dug in their heels and kept trying to prove themselves, rather than improve.
Then, when the pandemic broke out, student enrollment plummeted and revenues collapsed.
This was not how Douglas had envisioned his new chapter. He had to find a way to get his team to stop trying to impress him and start working with him to find new solutions—and the clock was ticking.
We’ll come back to Anjali, Gino, and Douglas later, but now that you’ve heard a bit about their challenges, let me tell you about mine.
Early in my career, I was the youngest investment professional at the Sprout Group—then one of the oldest and largest venture capital firms in the world. I loved being exposed to different executive teams, industries, and companies at the leading edge of innovation, and I had the exciting opportunity to serve on boards of directors alongside much more experienced and knowledgeable investors and operators.
But when I think back on those days, what I remember most vividly is the incredible pressure I felt to perform.
We regularly sat in meetings listening to startup teams pitch their ventures. When the entrepreneurs stepped out of the room, we’d take turns voicing our impression of the opportunity. As a very junior professional just starting my career, I didn’t know enough to have a strong conviction about whether an investment was attractive, but I pretended to.
As my colleagues shared their views, I would try to decide what to advocate for. When my turn came, I left my conflicting thoughts and uncertainties unspoken to make it appear that all of my thinking pointed in one direction and that I had high confidence in my recommendation. I would pick a side—to engage in due diligence or turn down the opportunity, or to invest or not—and advocate for it with certainty.
I realized that by not sharing some of my thoughts, I was withholding information that could have helped us make better decisions. This caused me anxiety because I wanted to help our team, but I was handcuffed by my belief that I needed to appear knowledgeable, decisive, and confident of my opinions.
After years of this, I got very good at looking like I knew what I was doing, but inside I felt disingenuous and inauthentic. I was constantly pretending.
Eventually, the chronic stress of these feelings affected my body physically. Under constant pressure, I kept my muscles contracted, so much that, eventually, they lost their ability to relax. It turns out that muscles are malleable, for better or for worse! Mine became shorter and harder, preventing blood from penetrating them and delivering the nutrients needed for proper functioning and healing.
It became painful for me to use my hands—to type, use the computer mouse, drive a car, open doors, even brush my teeth. After seeing many specialists, I was finally diagnosed with a repetitive strain injury called myofascial pain syndrome.
As time went on, my condition grew worse. I met people with the same affliction who could no longer use their hands for more than ten minutes a day, and it terrified me.
I was determined to do all I could to heal.
But I suspected that what I needed to change was more than just my posture.
Stuck in chronic performance
Though the stories differ, Gino, Anjali, Douglas’s colleagues, and I were all suffering from the same condition, one I call chronic performance: the constant attempt to get every task done as flawlessly as possible, and then some.
Maybe parts of our stories sound familiar to you?
Are you always racing to check tasks off a list?
Do you spend most of your time trying to minimize mistakes?
Do you suppress your uncertainties, impressions, or questions to try to appear like you always know what you’re doing?
Would you rather walk over hot coals than get feedback?
These are all signs of chronic performance. While it may seem like minimizing mistakes is a reasonable use of our time or that appearing decisive is a wise career strategy, these habits can have a devastating impact on our skills, confidence, jobs, and personal lives.
Chronic performance could be the reason you might be feeling stagnant in some area of your life. You might be working more hours or putting more effort into tasks, yet you never seem to get ahead. Life feels like a never-ending game of catch-up. That’s chronic performance—throwing more energy at tasks and problems yet staying at the same level of effectiveness.