Denise Cummins Ph.D.

Good Thinking


Be a High Performer (Not a Workaholic) in 2015

High performers succeed. Workaholics burn out. Which are you?

Posted Jan 11, 2015

Jullien Gordon is a nationally recognized speaker and founding partner of New Higher. He is also, by his own admission, a recovering workaholic. In a recent LinkedIn post, he shared with his readers a profound insight: Workaholism and high performance look a lot alike to the outside observer. But in reality, they have nothing to with each other.

Gordon came to this conclusion while researching factors that correlate with high performance, and by conducting experiments on himself. His conclusion: "The big difference isn't how many hours are logged, but how the individual feels on the inside about who they are in relationship to their work."

If that sounds a bit "warm and fuzzy", rest assured that his observations are sound and, as I'll show, backed up by good science. Although he lists several distinctions, I found three to be most compelling.

1. High performers are proactive in creating their own value. Workaholics are reactive, thereby allow others to determine their value.

Higher performers create their own feedback loops in the workplace rather than waiting for feedback from others. Before applying or going for an interview, top performers study a company's mission statement, key personnel, and the job description. From there, they develop a persuasive statement describing how hiring them will bring value to the company. While working, they keep track of how their work has benefitted their team, their department, and the company, and will find ways to bring that to the attention of superiors. They will also seek feedback from superiors on their performance rather than waiting for quarterly or annual reports (just not so frequently as to appear insecure or needy.)

Workaholics, on the other hand, depend entirely on others to choose whether and when to let them know how they are doing. They keep themselves chronically busy, never looking up to ask where their work fits into the bigger picture. Their focus is on working hard, working fast, and (often) making sure they stay ahead of others. It isn't unusual for a workaholic to burn out just trying to stay ahead of others. They often don't have a clear idea how his or her work fits into the overall productivity of their section of the workplace.

2. High performers give 100% at the right time. Workaholics give 110% all of the time.

Gordon points out that high performers "know that, like the economy, business comes in waves. Therefore, they get ready during the dips so they can capitalize during the upswings." When there is a lull, they spend time strategizing so that they can hit the ground running with a viable plan that will achieve results. This makes them results oriented.

Workaholics, on the other hand, fill any space in time with busy work because they feel insecure doing nothing," Gordon explains, "The insecurity comes from not knowing their value." Their No. 1 goal is to be—or to appear-- busy at all times.

3. High performers take the initiative every workday. Workaholics are reactive to whatever the workday tosses them.

According to Gordon, high performers plan out their day in advance, giving top priority to the most important work to be done. Only when that work is done do they shift focus to unplanned events.

In contrast, Gordon says, "a workaholic's day is driven entirely by outside distractions like reading emails." Since the constant goal of a workaholic is to be busy and to appear to be busy, it doesn't much matter which task is undertaken, as long as effort is being applied to some task or other.

4. High performers put themselves first.

High performers realize that only they are responsible for what they accomplish, and that their value to the workplace will be assessed according to their accomplishments. For this reason, they make sure to give top priority to their own assignments and goals. Because their work output is necessary for reaching workplace goals, everyone benefits from their stellar work.

Workaholics tend to put others first, which leads to burnout. They take on the work of others and make that their top priority. Their own work suffers as a result. They may log long hours to meet the demands of getting others' work done along with their own. Because they judge their worth in terms of "busyness", they don't realize that they have shortchanged themselves the time and effort they needed to do a good job on their own work, and to give themselves much needed downtime.

The Empirical Proof

A study published in the April, 2013 issue of the professional journal Management Science lends credibility to Gordon's observations. The study was led by Dr. Anat Bracha, a researcher at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. One group of participants solved sequences (“sequence” task) by finding a missing number in a sequence of four numbers. This task requires cognitive effort and abstract thinking. A second group classified a random number into an “odd” or “even” category ("filing task"). This task requires little abstract thinking, only manual effort. The participants were paid either for their performance (how many they got right in the time allotted to the job) or they competed in a tournament in which the winner got more. On average, the participants could expect to earn about $35 if they chose the pay-for-performance option. In the risky tournament condition, the prize was $60 and the loser got $10, so, on average, the expected winnings was $35—the same as in the pay-for-performance condition.

Performance in the filing condition was pretty much the same in the pay-for-performance and tournament conditions. But in the more cognitively taxing sequence task condition, the results were striking: Under the competitive conditions, performance dropped by 7.5% overall. When performance was examined across the work period, the drop was even more dramatic: In the beginning, performance hovered around 75%, but by the end of the tournament, it had dropped to 57% (and this was particularly true for women).

The authors concluded that strong competitive incentives induce agents to work harder but not necessarily smarter, leading to poorer performance overall.

Improve performance by changing your mind

Dr. Shawn Achor, a Harvard trained psychologist, educator, author, and speaker known for his advocacy of positive psychology, points out yet another problem with workaholism: Never arriving where you want to arrive.

Workaholics tend to have these rules in their heads:

If I work harder, then I will succeed.

If I succeed, then I will be happy.

But when they achieve a goal, they don't allow themselves to feel the satisfaction that comes with success. Instead, they raise the bar higher: If they hit their sales quota, they raise it for the next time. If they land a good job, they are already setting their sites on a promotion. As a result, that elusive state of happiness gets pushed over the cognitive horizon, never to be reached. To put it another way: their brains never get to experience what it feels like to be a winner.

According to advocates of positive psychology such as Dr. Achor, finding the positive in current achievements improves the likelihood of future success. The reason for this is that when you allow yourself to feel like a winner, your brain is flooded with dopamine. More dopamine translates into better mood—you feel happier—and into better future performance because dopamine turns on the learning centers of the brain. He points to studies showing that allowing yourself to feel positive about your accomplishments yields a 31% in work productivity, 37% increase in sales performance, and 19% improvement in diagnostic performance among physicians.

Now here is the "fuzzy" part: How do you put your brain in a positive state? By incorporating very simple tasks into your workday. Requiring people to write down three new things each day for which they were grateful for 21 days in a row yielded changes in brain function that caused them to shift their attentional focus to positive aspects of world scenes. Journaling just one positive thing each day allows the brain to re-live the experience, giving it a double boost of dopamine and causing permanent changes in brain function

For more abut Dr. Achor's positive psychology, I recommend watching his brief TEDx talk that is as highly entertaining as it is informative. Shawn Achor TED talk

Here's to a successful and productive 2015!

Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins January 11, 2015

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

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