High Achiever? Don’t fall into these traps. (part 1)

Many high performers would rather do the wrong things well than do the right thing poorly.”
~ Thomas J. DeLong and Sara DeLong, “The Paradox of Excellence,” Harvard Business Review, June 2011

Part 1: Introduction

Leaders are high achievers who continually grow as professionals. But in many organizations, there are high achievers who are floundering. They’re smart, ambitious professionals who aren’t as productive or satisfied as they could be. Many ascend to leadership positions and reach a plateau in their professional growth.

Throughout their careers, they’ve been told they’re high potentials. They should be flourishing, but they often let anxiety about their performance compromise their ability to learn and grow.

Fear of revealing their limitations may cause high achievers to undermine their careers and hamper their leadership abilities. Many know they can and should be doing better, but they fail to ask for help.

If you’re a high achiever, then you’re used to winning and accustomed to turning out remarkable performance. But what happens when you’re in over your head or on an accelerating  treadmill that’s going nowhere fast?

For example, when challenged by new technologies or strategic game changes, you’re probably unwilling to admit it and often refuse to ask for help. The very strengths that led you to the fast track can steer you toward poor performance.

High performers exhibit eight typical behaviors, write Thomas J. and Sara DeLong in “The Paradox of Excellence” (Harvard Business Review, June 2011):

  1. Driven to achieve results: Achievers don’t let anything get in the way of goal completion. But they can become so caught up in tasks that colleagues get pushed aside. Transparency or helping others feels like a waste of valuable time.
  2. Doers: Because nobody can do it as well or as quickly as they can, they drift into poor delegation or micromanagement.
  3. Highly motivated: Achievers take their work seriously, but they fail to see the difference between the urgent and the merely important—a potential path to burnout.
  4. Addicted to positive feedback: Achievers care how others perceive them and their work, but they tend to ignore positive feedback and obsess over criticism.
  5. Competitive: Achievers go overboard in their competitive drive; they obsessively compare themselves to others. This leads to a chronic sense of insufficiency, false calibrations and career missteps.
  6. Passionate about work: Achievers feed on the highs of successful work but are subject to crippling lows. They tend to devote more attention to what’s lacking (the negative), rather than what’s right (the positive).
  7. Safe risk takers: Because they are so passionate about success, they shy away from risk and the unknown. They won’t stray far from their comfort zone.
  8. Guilt-ridden: No matter how much they accomplish, achievers believe it’s never enough. They want more. When they do complete a milestone, they don’t take the time to savor the moment. They expect to be successful, so they deny themselves the chance to fully appreciate the joy of achievement.

You may recognize yourself as a high achiever. Or, perhaps you started out that way but have let yourself fade into the background. You play it safe, maybe even telling yourself that your average performance is above the norm — so why risk more?

When you’re used to having things come easily to you, it’s only natural to shy away from assignments that test you and require you to learn new skills.

When you have a successful self-image to protect, you find yourself avoiding risk. Instead, many high achievers like yourself hunker down and lock themselves into routines at the expense of professional growth.

It’s possible to break this cycle and get back on track for career success. In fact, it’s not only possible — it’s essential if you want to flourish in top leadership roles.

Tomorrow: Part 2 Breaking Out of Traps

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