What Holds High Performers Back

Several years ago, I ordered a package of concert tickets.  The package was for a variety of artists all performing at the same venue, spanning over a couple of months.   The morning of the very first concert some friends called to invite us to an impromptu party that night.

We had already paid for the tickets, so we decided the best option was to swing by the party on the way. ‘No problem,” said our friends, “Just come for as long as you can, it’s super casual.” So we went and just as we were starting to have fun, it was time to go.  The concert was starting in 30 minutes. “We would really love to stay,” I said, “But we already have these concert tickets, so we have to go.”

Just as we were about to walk out, one of our friends said, “You know, you really don’t have to go. You’ve already spent the money, now it’s just a question of how you want to spend your time.”

He was right, we didn’t want to go to that concert; we wanted to be with our friends.  We weren’t going to lose any more money if we missed the concert.  However, it would have been a waste of an opportunity to leave the party. We stayed and had a great time.

The same thing happens at work. High performers are resilient, respected, and dedicated people. They champion projects, strive for progress, and oftentimes, won’t take no for an answer. Yet, they’re often sabotaged by a shared Achilles heel: Over-investing because of sunk costs.

Here are two examples:

Holding on to Failing Projects
Once we part with time, money, or resources, we become emotionally invested in sticking with our decision.

Several years ago, I was working with a large IT firm. They were amid a major systems overhaul, and it wasn’t going well. Their team was burnt out, working through weekends, and immensely behind on the timeline. And even worse, the new system wasn’t performing like it was supposed to. There were major flaws.

I asked my client, who was leading the change effort, why they were continuing to push forward. He replied, “Well, we’ve invested several million dollars…we have to make it work.” For high performers, the thought of having to acknowledge that our chosen course of action was a waste of  time and money is so jarring, that it often prompts us to waste more. In this case, it took 3 more months of misery before the team admitted they needed a different approach.

Over-investing in Low Performers 
Early in my career as a sales coach at P&G, my boss came to me with a request: Turn around the performance of someone on the team. This person had been in role for 12+ months and was yet to attain quota. My boss said, “Lisa, I’m confident that with your help, he can start hitting his numbers.” At all of 25, I was fully committed to impressing my boss. So I set out to work. I spent hours upon hours with this rep, repeating myself over and over. I showed him how to do better pre-call planning, he did it once, and then stopped. I suggested asking more questions in sales calls, he tried it a couple of times, and then stopped. Every step forward ended with two steps backward.

By this point, I had invested multiple days, I didn’t want to just give up. Instead, I pushed forward, investing weeks upon weeks of my time as a coach. I was so attached to an unrealistic outcome and so unwilling to admit I had wasted time, I continued down a path that ultimately (in hindsight, unsurprisingly) never improved. Months later, I realized I cared more about his development than he did.

I’m not suggesting that people don’t deserve training, second chances, or space to improve. Quite the opposite.  But whether it’s a peer, your boss, or someone who works for you, continuing to invest more time and energy into someone than they are willing to invest in themselves is always a sunk-cost trap.

As the saying goes- any virtue taken to an extreme is a vice. When you care deeply about success, it’s tempting to keep pushing.   But sometimes the smartest thing to do is quit. Just because you’ve already invested significant time and money doesn’t mean you should invest more.