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High achievers = high anxieties in the workplace

anxietyAn interesting article was published in the Globe and Mail about high achievers and how best to understand and work with them. High achievers, sometimes known as workaholics, have been found to be secretly plagued by fears and self-doubts and prone to resist change. Though it is important to be hard-working and have a drive to achieve in order to be successful, it can get out of control.

Apparently, there are three things that most commonly create anxiety in high achievers, they include:

  • Fear of being wrong
  • Doubt about the significance of what they are accomplishing
  • Being socially isolated

This leads to overachievers trying to relieve anxiety by staying as busy as possible, comparing themselves to others and blaming others for their frustrations. Ultimately, these reactions not only create blind spots in their leadership, but can paralyze highly competent people into inaction and ultimately lead to failure.

Not surprisingly, these issues can become problematic in a workplace, especially if the overachievers will not admit to such behaviour. According to Harvard University management professor Thomas DeLongit, it is a pervasive problem among leaders.

“It’s necessity, in a way, for top-level executives to have an insatiable drive to achieve. Some overcome their fears, adopt new behaviours and lead enormously successful, fulfilled lives. Unfortunately, they are a minority,” said Prof. DeLong, author of Flying Without a Net: Turn Fear of Change into Fuel for Success.

So what are the practical solutions to an overachiever?

One of the proposed solutions is for employers and human resources to help the high achiever recognize the symptoms to try to avoid the pitfalls and bring about the necessary changes. The article provides a good overview of the symptoms and solutions.

For example,

Being busy

Symptoms: You walk fast, talk fast and have little time for small talk. You keep your agenda full, racing from one meeting to the next, spending hours each day on your Blackberry and emails.

Reality: Much of your frenetic pace and harried attitude is for show. Deep down, you believe that by staying on the run and creating the impression you are purposeful, you will stay ahead of your worries.

Prescription: Be aware you are doing this and become more aware of the way people are reacting to you. Impose a limit on electronics, phone conversations, meetings and business travel time. Make time to ask people how they are doing and talk about anything other than job-related tasks. At home, set times when using the phone and checking electronic messages are off-limits.

The key is understanding the overachiever’s personality type and building a relationship of trust.

In order to work well alongside overachievers or manage them, it is crucial to understand what motivates them. One way to achieve this goal is to give top performers the flexible environment they need, and tap into their creativity. Also, to address their fear of failure, it is important to make them feel safe when they make a mistake; reshape such incidents as learning experiences.

All those working with an overachiever should be aware that there is a serious risk of burnout among overachievers. It may actually be necessary to step in and remind them of how long they have been working and insist they take a break to refuel.

More can be found on BNet: How to Manage Overachievers.

Have you experienced an overachiever in your workplace? How have you managed or worked with the typical “workaholic”?

Christina Catenacci
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Christina Catenacci

Christina Catenacci, BA, LLB, LLM, was called to the Ontario Bar in 2002 and has since been a member of the Ontario Bar Association. Christina worked as an editor with First Reference between February 2005 and August 2015, working on publications including The Human Resources Advisor (Ontario, Western and Atlantic editions), HRinfodesk discussing topics in Labour and Employment Law. Christina has decided to pursue a PhD at the University of Western Ontario beginning in the fall of 2015. Read more
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