The Performance Paradox: When Success Stands in the Way of More Success

The load-bearing beam of success is performance.  Good performance props up the individual, team, and/or organization while weak performance creates a sketchy, shaky environment that puts your goals at risk. So it’s no surprise that people everywhere are focused on managing, improving, and reviewing their performance—that is, until they start to experience success.

Nothing succeeds like success

French/English proverb

What is the performance paradox?

It’s thrilling to finally hit milestones, especially those that put the “go” in your goals. And it’s natural to take time to sigh and reflect on what you accomplished before jumping back in. But all too often, people sigh and relax—and then stay there, turning the sigh into a siesta. They interpret these moments as confirmation of future success and thus often overlook underlying issues.

That’s the performance paradox: when a feeling of wellbeing based on previous success prevents you from putting in the efforts required to continue to succeed. And it’s one of the biggest blind spots for aspiring top-performers.

One triumph doesn’t automatically beget more good performance. Even after a big win, we may actually see performance stall because we allow ourselves to “take it a little easier.” The time when our continued, and even increased, performance is needed is exactly when we feel the least need to do so.

Bottom line: how you respond to your successes may actually be preventing performance improvement.

How success can be a barrier to performance improvement

I once had the opportunity to work with an organization whose sales division was stalled. They had performed their way into a false sense of ongoing success and were failing to live up to it. In prior years, they’d worked hard to meet their goals and posted some pretty remarkable numbers. They considered themselves a fine-tuned engine, predictably churning out great results. But recently, they’d stopped moving toward their goals. I was tasked with understanding why performance was beginning to sputter and stall.

On the surface, their performance data looked decent. They appeared to be achieving their targets, but they also seemed to lack drive. Many individuals seemed to be coasting. This impression was confirmed when we took time to dig a little deeper into the team’s performance data.

The organization typically reported total sales and overall revenue by sales rep. However, we decided to also look at the sales activities that produced those numbers. We noticed a steady decline in the overall amount of time individual reps were logging. They were coming to work later, leaving a little earlier, and most importantly, spending less time in actual sales activities. Even though they all reported how “busy” they were, the data showed that their activities lacked the substance to maintain their current level of revenue. 

Additionally, we found that once people hit their monthly goals, the decline in performance accelerated. They slowed down in their efforts to sell. And while this wasn’t hurting them in the short run (their sales numbers were adequate), they were experiencing setbacks in the long run when new/different challenges would require new/different levels of effort.

In the end, the team’s past overall performance numbers were due more to an unusually good business climate than to unparalleled performance. And the resulting “nothing succeeds like success” attitude they’d adopted was costing them. They were not putting in the time and effort necessary to meet their longer-term sales growth targets.

Now it was our job to help them overcome the performance paradox.

A false sense of security

As I worked with the team, I found that everyone recognized one salesperson, Kai, as the undisputed top performer. Month after month and year after year, he turned in stellar, data-confirmed results. The problem was that everyone else thought their own performance was trailing closely behind the Kai-set mark. To be fair, each salesperson had periodic months that were Kai-esque in the amount of time and effort they put in. This caused them to believe that they were performing better than they really were overall.

They were focusing on the peaks of their performance only, treating anything less as an anomaly, and that was giving them a false idea of their true performance. In reality, the peaks made up only a small part of their actual performance. But they were giving those successes undue weight which in turn skewed their perception of their performance.

When you focus on the peaks in performance while ignoring the dips, you believe your performance is equal to the average of those peaks.

In this case, because the team members relied on the heroic memory of their last victory they viewed their periodic success as confirmation of what they believed to be their own outstanding performance.  And they eventually stopped putting in the effort required to truly match Kai’s sales numbers consistently.

The performance paradox waits for you everywhere

The performance paradox lurks at the unseen edges of stalled performance in every industry and endeavor.

In his 2008 article titled “The Bell Curve,” Atul Gawande expounds on what the performance paradox looks like in health care: “What you tend to find is a bell curve: a handful of teams with disturbingly poor outcomes for their patients, a handful with remarkably good results, and a great undistinguished middle.”

Interestingly, when you ask health care professionals which of these three categories they believe they’re in, nobody believes they’re in the “great undistinguished middle”—not even those who actually are.  Most everyone believes they’re standing shoulder to shoulder with those in the “remarkably good results” group.  They think the only undistinguishable aspect of their patient outcomes is the difference in performance between them and the best.

But again, when you look at the data, only a small percentage of the teams fall in that top group. The faulty assumption that they’re in that top group keeps those spread out in the bell curve from reaching that top tier

To break free of the paradox, you need to shift from viewing success as confirmation that your work is done to viewing it as information about the work that remains to be done.

Whether you’re in health care or any other field, the Performance Paradox creates a false sense of finality: I’ve reached the desired end state. And even though I’ve only done what’s required to achieve it a few times, I start to believe I’m performing at that level all the time. To break free of the paradox, you need to shift from viewing success as confirmation that your work is done to viewing it as information about the work that remains to be done.

The problem is the answer

The key to getting free of the paradox is also the thing that causes individuals and teams to slip into a lull in the first place: how you respond to the spikes in performance. You need to shift from viewing success as confirmation that your work is done to viewing it as information about the work that remains to be done.      

Try the following solutions to move from confirmation mode (complacency that you’ve arrived at your final success destination) to information mode (using success as a data point to guide your future work):

1. Accurately assess your performance. According to performance improvement and quality guru H. James Harrington, “Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually improvement.” So many people have a false sense of control because of their casual relationship with the data on their performance. They only look at the data periodically after experiencing a success, or they only look at the broad picture that data projects believing they see all there is to see instead of digging a little deeper (like we did with the sales team), extracting more usable information and patterns from the data set.

Then use data to help determine where you currently are compared to where you think you ought to be. Where possible, use the existing measures to evaluate performance.

Find a new perspective. You may need to look at the info differently (e.g., by individual vs. by group) to see performance patterns. You may also find it useful to measure performance over a longer period to see peaks and plateaus.

For example, the sales team I mentioned above had the data.  They just weren’t using it.  They were tracking outcomes, but not the behaviors that led to them. We worked with them to modify their scoreboard. We added measures of whether reps were actively moving prospects through the sales cycle. We also noted how they compared to Kai in regard to time spent in specific sales activities. With this info, individuals were better aware of the future work required to succeed.

Look at different data. In some cases, you may need to create new data streams to help you see the true nature of your performance. For example, at one point in my life I was trying to get a better handle on budgeting. I had overall figures of what I was spending for the month but found that wasn’t as useful to me in my day-to-day living. I was still running over budget regularly.

Because I wasn’t tracking it, my money was free and easy—as in freely leaving my pocket and easily snatched up by vendors.  Not a good combination, in case you’re wondering. 

I realized I needed some additional data that didn’t currently exist. So, I decided to carry a 3×5 card to record all my expenditures. It was a low-tech solution to be sure, but it was pretty easy to use. When I was forced into looking at the data, I realized that my spending habits were a little more predictable than I’d thought. It gave me a clear understanding of where, and under what circumstances, I was spending more than I had realized (in my case, any time sweets were involved).

Make sure your data is working for you. What you’re shooting for here is a clear, accurate representation of your current, overall performance.

2. Focus on positive deviance. A great way to shift from relaxing after a success to reflecting on what caused the success is to look for positive deviance. Positive deviance is the study of a community or system to identify outliers from the norm—outliers who’re succeeding where most others are underperforming. In this context, those spikes in performance become useful data points to examine further.

When you see outstanding performance in the data, examine what those performers are doing differently from everyone else in the moment. Use the deviation as a starting point to zero in on what’s really driving better performance.

In the case of the sales team, they were fortunate enough to have Kai as their positive deviant. Observing Kai ended up helping everyone improve.

You can also use this approach when examining your own performance. You will almost always see patterns in your break-away performance spikes. For example, when I was tracking my expenses, I noticed there were days I wasn’t as likely to spend extra on sweet, sweet old-fashioned sour cream glazed donuts. It turned out that I was bringing a piece of fruit in my lunch on these days, and that was satisfying my craving for something sweet. With this piece of data, I was able to hit my goal.


Whether you’re into performance management or performance art, you know the value of consistency in becoming and remaining successful. And to ensure that your most recent success is the first in a long series of successes, remember to pause and reflect, with data, so you get an accurate understanding of the levels of effort required to perform yourself into success after success.