In an occasional series, a psychotherapist looks at the best strategies for navigating office politics
We have all worked with — or for — over-achievers. It is very difficult for them to change this trait, precisely because their success is so closely linked with their destructive work habits.
Overachievers have many qualities — not least the drive and energy to succeed — but unrealistically high expectations of themselves and others mean they can lose perspective. Constant striving can come with a high psychological cost, while excessive self-centred determination can damage organisations or the teams they lead.
This obsession to achieve is often the result of an underlying desire for admiration, as well as attempts to control events. They worry that if they give up these habits, they will fail. And when overachievers relax, they feel guilty.
One executive came to me for therapy in a bid to understand his obsession with winning. He says: “I like to be better than other people. Ideally, I’d like to be better than everyone, but I have to be realistic. It’s the pursuit more than the destination.”
His compulsion to achieve was triggered in adolescence when he joined a rowing crew and discovered that winning seemed to solve many of his problems.
“I didn’t have many friends, and I didn’t do that well in school,” he says. “I knew that my parents were disappointed in me. Then I found something that changed everything — rowing. I had a team and they all became my friends, and my parents were proud of me.”
One overachiever admitted to pushing his staff too hard by extending his unreasonably high expectations of himself on to them
Gaining his parents’ admiration was crucial. “I felt I needed to win their love,” he says. But in adulthood he slipped into a cycle of relying on anxiety-fuelled adrenalin to propel him to succeed in business, while simultaneously depending on his achievements to alleviate his fear of failing. Winning became a zero-sum game learnt from rowing for his national team.
If his team won a silver or bronze they would sometimes throw those medals into the water: “Why would you be given a medal for a race you didn’t win?”
As long as he continued to achieve in his career, he could keep unwanted feelings and unresolved internal conflicts at bay. “Part of the reason [to win] is because there are deep dark things I don’t want to face up to — like a Band-Aid on a wound. In my mind I think, ‘why would I try to heal the wound now, it’s not bleeding that badly?’”
Reflecting on retirement only confirmed his narrow vision of the world — he fears that when he stops working he will need to re-learn how to gain gratification from life in other ways. He found it difficult to work with people who did not share his drive, often judging them harshly. “It’s very tough to build a team because not every team member will share your aspirations.”
Another overachiever I saw professionally admitted to pushing his staff too hard, which came at a cost, by extending his unreasonably high expectations of himself on to them. “I can see at times I’m demanding, and that’s going to cut across that culture of collegiality [that I want to create].”
Overachievers resent colleagues they perceive as not “pulling their weight”. They also believe that pressure on employees comes from external forces, rather than from their own unrealistic expectations.
Victoria Wall, who specialises in executive coaching, says such individuals often lead their team in a way that may not be aligned with the company’s expectations and strategies. Such leaders can push a business in the wrong direction. For example, if they lead by relying on skills that have made them personally successful in the past, there can be damaging consequences to the overall business performance.
Ms Wall says that overachievers’ early successes often do not translate into good team management. “Their [early] success came from ‘I am going to do better than everyone else out there doing what I do for a living’, and that has worked,” she says. “But as soon as they are in a leadership role, that level of competitive drive is perceived by the team as a huge [self-promoting] agenda. People do not follow leaders if that’s their remit.”
A further danger, she suggests, is that staff will view such a boss as uncaring about their career progression and someone who will not nurture their talents because they are focused on themselves.
Driven by anxiety
Another former client, a 52-year-old trader, defined himself almost entirely by his accomplishments. His drive to achieve was fuelled by an obsessive-compulsive pattern that left him in a state of constant anxiety — needing to succeed so as not to wipe out his previous successes.
A straight-A student throughout school, a first-class degree from Oxbridge, and finishing top of his class in law school left him determined to continue being on top of his game. He says: “With an exam there’s a result. In business those accolades are less tangible; you judge success through the financial result.”
He inherited his mother’s anxious nature, believing that unless he worried, bad things would happen. This turned into a belief that he needed to worry in order for good things to happen.
“Having achieved results to a high degree, it’s almost perpetuated itself,” he says. “I can see I’m getting results because I’m worrying, therefore I need to worry about the next thing to make sure that happens.”
The more he raised his game, however, the more anxious he became. He relied on the “rush of a win” to boost his mood and relieve his anxiety, but then afterwards came the inevitable low.
Such people tend to change only once they experience the harm inflicted on their careers or family life.
Recognising yourself as an overachiever is the first step. Then comes the hard work of facing the consequences, and understanding the origins of one’s strong feelings. A more difficult challenge is learning to tolerate uncertainty and uncomfortable feelings while attempting to lower expectations of yourself and others.
This article was first published in the Financial Times