27 September 2023

When it’s time to sit back and say ‘enough’

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Lisa Earle McLeod* says the Achilles heel of many otherwise top performers is an unwillingness to let go of a project that is obviously failing.

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 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, just come for as long as you can, it’s super casual,” our friends said, 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, but we already have these concert tickets, so we have to go,” I said.

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 often 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.

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 it often prompts us to waste more.

In this case, it took three more months of misery before the team admitted it needed a different approach.

Over-investing in low performers

Early in my career as a sales coach my boss came to me with a request: Turn around the performance of someone on the team.

This person had been in the role for more than 12 months and was yet to attain a sales 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 realised 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.

However, 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.

However, sometimes the smartest thing to do is to quit. Just because you’ve already invested significant time and money doesn’t mean you should invest more.

*Lisa Earle McLeod is the leadership expert best known for creating the popular business concept Noble Purpose. She is the author of Selling with Noble Purpose and Leading with Noble Purpose. She can be contacted at mcleodandmore.com.

This article first appeared at mcleodandmore.com.

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