The word ‘over-achiever’ can be seen as a compliment, but is it really something we should want to achieve? Sarah Lang looks at how being an over-achiever can be harmful rather than helpful in this edition of What Working Women REALLY Want
At Capsule, we’ve written a lot of stories about women at work. We’ve noticed that many of these topics are very much intertwined: pushing back against hustle culture, why perpetual striving might not make us happier, working-mum guilt, letting go of perfectionism, battling burnout, juggling work with the mental load and SO many more.
Then we got to wondering about what working women really want. As in, what do we actually want – rather than what are we ‘meant’ to want because, for instance, we’ve internalised social pressure to climb the corporate ladder or earn a certain income. Also, are there things that we don’t yet know we want, but might realise we want if we find out more? And are there more things we could ask our employers for?
Welcome to our new series What Working Women REALLY Want. If you have any story ideas, or are keen to be interviewed for a piece, please email us at [email protected] – and click here for our previous instalments!
Sophie*, a 36-year-old architect at a Wellington firm, was managing a team of junior architects as well as doing her own work. She thought she was doing a sterling job: she met her required outputs and then some, she worked late, she took on additional duties.
Then Jane, the HR manager at the company, scheduled a meeting with Sophie and Sophie’s boss, and they sat down together. Jane told Sophie that her peer review (where colleagues rate each other’s work performance), the feedback from her current team, and exit interviews (from people who had left her team) pointed in the same direction.
Sophie expected it all to be good stuff – but she was wrong. “Their message was basically that I was so focused on getting things done to such a super-high standard that I was always hunched over my computer in my own little bubble. That I wasn’t collaborating enough with colleagues, or being open enough to new ways of doing things. That some of my [former and current] team members felt they were expected to do too much at too high a standard, so got very stressed.”
“Jane and my boss were both as nice as possible, and made it clear I was still valued as an employee, but I was mortified. Jane could tell I was upset so she suggested I take the rest of the day off. I got home as quick as I could, and sobbed. I felt like I’d been kicked in the guts.” Sophie took a day of sick leave, then the weekend, to think things over.
She realised she’d always felt the need to achieve more and more – and had seen hard slog as the only way to do so. “I’d always thought of myself as an over-achiever and seen that as a good thing. Now it was like I’d studied for an exam my whole life only to find the exam questions had changed.”
“I hadn’t seen what was right in front of my face. I was so laser-focused on the final outcome of a project that I wasn’t enjoying the process as much. I didn’t look out for potential left-field learnings or for other people’s suggestions on things to try. I also realised I’d pushed my over-achiever standards onto my team members and wasn’t connecting with them on a human level.”
“I wanted to just up and quit, and I nearly did. But first I thought I’d try to see if there was a way through this, and – for a change – asked for help.”
Jane organised for Sophie to access the employer-funded Employee Assistance Programme, which provides counselling or therapy services to help people with issues that are affecting their work. Sophie also did some sessions with a psychologist that she’d seen occasionally for years. “We did some work on my attitude to being an overachiever, because it was something I’d always prided myself on.”
Sophie admits it’s hard to undo years of conditioning to be an over-achiever. “But I’m learning to accept being a high achiever instead. My psychologist told me that noticing when I fall into old patterns is a big step in itself.”
At work, she has regular check-ins with her boss about managing her workload and when things can be delegated. As a manager, she’s adapting. She’s having more conversations with her team about their workloads, their families, etc, and she’s joined the workplace social club.
Also, she’s feeling less stressed, and has time to exercise. She and her partner have more quality time now that she’s not working late.
Good or bad?
The term ‘over-achiever’ is often presented as something to praise. As something that marks us as special and distinguishes us from others. What does the term conjure up for you? Someone who gets all A grades at school and uni? Someone who lands an impressive job, works very hard, and works long hours? Someone who takes on more and more projects? Someone constantly climbing the career ladder?
Kendra Cherry, a psychosocial-rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of The Everything Psychology Book: Explore the Human Psyche and Understand why We Do the Things We Do, has written the article ‘11 Signs You Might Be an Overachiever’.
Kendra asks the question: how do we define overachievement? “Is there a point at which being successful and high-performing veers into excess? While there is no established definition, most would agree that the problem is not the need to achieve. Instead, it is the means that are used to reach and maintain that level of achievement that can be problematic.”
Yes, it’s important to set and strive toward goals. “But the problem with overachievement is that it involves reaching these goals at costs that outweigh the rewards… Even though they attain more success than the vast majority of people, they [overachievers] are never satisfied and always strive to accomplish more.”
Being an overachiever and being a high achiever are different, Kendra says. “Overachievers are often more focused on reaching the finish line than they are on the actual end product…. no matter what it takes, they will get it done”. Whereas, she writes, high performers are focused on reaching their goals, but it’s also “about the journey itself, how well the project turns out, and how much they learn along the way”.
Being an over-achiever may negatively affect relationships in the workplace, especially with anyone you manage. “Overachievers hold themselves to an almost impossibly high standard, and they tend to apply those same measures to those that they supervise. Team members may respect an overachiever’s work ethic but can feel overburdened by the weight of expectations that these leaders hold.”
How it hurts
Professional-success and leadership-mindset coach Erin Urban wrote the Forbes article ‘The Shocking Truth: Being An Overachiever Will Hurt Your Career’.
Before her career pivot, Erin was “extremely competitive” and “compelled towards perfectionism” in the corporate workplace. “I thought all of these things were excellent character traits guaranteed to get me ahead in the world of business. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Being an overachiever will hurt your career growth.”
She realised that after getting ‘The Wake-Up Call’. “It was performance-review time. As one of the leading project managers at my organization, I was responsible for a significant amount of revenue. I strove for excellence and set high standards for myself, including my team. I was never satisfied with the job I did and I was certifiably polite and professional at all times. I didn’t necessarily demonstrate how much I valued others because I was so busy. The result: I got a bad peer review.”
Then she had ‘The Pivot Point’. “Through the process of shock and disappointment came reflection: I realized that I had blinders on for most of my life. I was fearful of failure and determined to be perfect. I expected that overachievement (including long hours) would bring success and I was convinced that being strictly professional was what you were supposed to do! In actuality, I made my life a lot harder and was denied the true success that comes with a balanced approach.”
Are you an over-achiever?
Erin explains some telltale signs:
- You expect too much. Driving yourself and others to a (sometimes unreasonably) high standard not only makes you hard to deal with, but it guarantees that you will never be satisfied with anything you do.
- You always want to be the best. No one likes people who always have to be the best at everything (even if they really are). Also, failure isn’t a bad thing… all true development comes from mistakes.
- You have the superhero complex. You may logically admit that you cannot be everything to everyone. But you constantly put too much on your plate, overbook yourself, and don’t ever ask for help. In all likelihood, you’re also seriously stressed out, overwhelmed and feel underappreciated.
- You’re constantly firefighting. This often happens to the chronic overachiever. Because I exhibited excellence in managing my projects and an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, I eventually became the project ‘fixer’ when things went sour.
So, if you’re an overachiever, how do you learn to do things differently? Get some professional help if needed, but here are some things to try. Work out where your strengths lay, and where they don’t, because no one’s good at everything. Revise your expectations of yourself and prioritise your goals. Learn when to say no, and view it as saying yes to your own needs. Risk failing, and learn from it when it happens. Talk to your boss about how they can help with all these things. Build human connections at work. You might, like Sophie, be able to say ‘no thanks’ to over-achieving – and become a high achiever instead.