For as long as I can remember, I have been driven and achievement-oriented. It started when I was six, playing tee-ball for the first time. I got a double (whatever that means when you’re six and playing tee-ball), but then Jamie Ditzenberger hit a home run (even for a six year old, it was a spectacularly hit ball). I vividly recall how cool it was to cross home plate and cheer with my teammates. Whatever that feeling was, I wanted to bottle it and drink it up in large doses. Thirty plus years later, I have done just that. While my drive has been the cause of tremendous personal success, it has also been responsible for some of my biggest challenges, both at work and at home.
Now that I work with high achieving professionals to help them prevent burnout, I can see the same pattern of thinking in them. Harvard Business School professor, Dr. Thomas DeLong, describes eleven traits that can cause high achieving professionals to stall and hit a wall. They are as follows:
1. Being driven to achieve the task: High achieving people are driven by challenging tasks that push them, but if work becomes tedious or repetitive, high achievers can become unmotivated or feel like they’re falling behind their peers.
2. Knowing what is urgent vs. just important. When I was practicing law, a client of mine used to categorize the priority of his projects with this three-tiered system: nuclear, super-nuclear, and catastrophic. I laugh as I write this because I still don’t know what distinguishes one from the other. By the end of my law career, though, I could no longer distinguish between tasks that were just important and those that were urgent – I perceived everything as urgent.
3. Trouble delegating. High achievers tend to have the highest standards for themselves and others. As a result, they hate delegating because it takes a certain amount of vulnerability to hand over a task and trust that it will be completed to that same high standard.
4. Transitioning to managerial roles. According to DeLong, high achievers worry that if they give up their technical expertise for a managerial role they may lose their ability to do the work. Many high achievers are selected for managerial roles because they have shown that they are good at producing, which does not necessarily mean they will make good managers. As a result, they might find the transition difficult and either micromanage or continue to be individual contributors while they learn the ropes.
5. Obsessing about getting the job done. While high achievers are able to focus on the task at hand with laser-like precision, that same ability to focus can interfere with additional tasks such as mentoring younger professionals or giving feedback.
6. Avoiding difficult conversations. Even though I teach people how to communicate assertively, I am so guilty of this. In fact, I can think of two conversations that I need to have with people that I have been delaying. Instead, I rationalize, analyze and even become defensive when my husband asks me why I’m dragging my feet. At the end of the day, it’s so hard for me to be vulnerable and sit with the uncomfortable feelings that I know will result.
7. Craving feedback. DeLong suggests that even though high achievers crave feedback, they don’t always respond well to it, particularly when it’s negative. That is due in part because high achievers rarely hear bad feedback about their performance. I see this a lot with lawyers – lawyers as a whole can be a very thin-skinned bunch, which surprises many people.
8. Thinking I’m either highly successful or a major failure. DeLong states that when high achievers feel as though they have been less than successful, they can swing from feeling responsible and successful to feeling like complete failures. When high achievers feel like failures, they can become hypercritical of not only themselves but just about anything (and anyone) else in their lives, which makes living with a driven individual rather unpleasant at times.
9. Comparing. The large law firm I worked at publicly published all of the billable hours each attorney accrued. Each person’s hours were there in black and white and included our names. So, naturally, when the report was released each month, the first thing I did was compare myself to the other high producers in the firm. If I had a good month, then all was right in the world; if my hours happened to be lower than usual, then see item #8 above.
10. Taking only safe risks. High achievers want to take on challenging tasks to get ahead, yet are also afraid to take a risk and fail. The last thing high achievers want to do is put themselves in the position of being seen as stupid. As a result, they take calculated risks to avoid feeling vulnerable. Some of this behavior can also be attributed to having a fixed mindset. According Dr. Carol Dweck’s research, people with fixed mindsets think that ability (intelligence, for example) is fixed or static and therefore incapable of being developed beyond what already exists. This leads to a desire to look smart, avoid challenges where your smarts might be questioned, and giving up easily.
11. Feeling guilty. Practically every woman I know, particularly working moms, feel guilty about something in their lives. When people have too much on their plates, they have to pick some roles and tasks over others. The result is that other things get ignored and this triggers that annoying little voice that says you should be doing something else and drives the feeling that there is never enough time.
Sound familiar? I’ll be spending some time in future posts talking about ways you can “tame the beast” and not let these traits get in your way. Know that simple self-awareness goes a long way – if you can merely identify which traits get in your way, you can take the necessary steps to change your counterproductive behaviors into productive ones.
Paula Davis-Laack, JD MAPP, is the Founder and CEO of the Davis Laack Stress & Resilience Institute, a practice devoted to helping busy professionals prevent burnout. Paula is the author of the e-book, 10 Things Happy People Do Differently.
Paula has been a featured expert on the Steve Harvey TV show, US News & World Report, Working Mother and Women’s Health magazines and speaks regularly about burnout prevention. Paula is available for speaking engagements, training workshops, media commentary, and private life coaching. To learn more, contact Paula at email@example.com or visit her website at www.pauladavislaack.com.
DeLong, T.J. (2011). Flying Without A Net: Turn Fear of Change Into Fuel for Success. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset. New York: Ballentine Books.