Smarter Workplaces: Why High Achievers Flounder

by  Cynthia Kivland  |  Leadership Development

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

Leaders are often 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 what I see is that they often let anxiety about their performance compromise their ability to learn and grow.

High achievers sometimes have a fear of revealing their limitations and this may cause them to undermine their own careers and hamper their leadership abilities. In my book Smart2Smarter How Emotional and Social Connections Bring Humanity into the Workplace, 2011, I discuss the skill of reciprocity- the ability to give and receive, lead and be led, teach and be taught.  Social reciprocity  is a must have skill that global employers want – especially from high achievers!

If you’re a high achiever, then you’re used to winning and accustomed to turning out remarkable performance. Sometimes though, the very strengths that led you to the fast track can steer you toward poor performance.  So 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, are you willing to admit the challenge, or do you often refuse to ask others for help?

There was a recent article on this in Harvard Business Review. High performers exhibit eight typical behaviors, according to authors Thomas J. and Sara DeLong in “The Paradox of Excellence” (HBR, 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.

What do you think about these traps? Recognize yourself in any of them? I’d love to hear your comments.

In addition to being a published author, Cynthia and the folks at Workforce Coach Institute teach the skill of reciprocity in their Social and Emotional Intelligence Certification classes.  Contact Cynthia for more information.

Note: This post was originally published on Cynthia’s blog here.

Photo © Yurok Aleksandrovich –

What’s Next? Please leave a comment below to join the conversation…

About The Author

Articles By cynthia-kivland
Full Bio Coming Soon

What People Are Saying

Virginia  |  25 Dec 2011  |  Reply

I like the article. I am not sure, however, that allowing oneself to fail is viewed positively by management. This change in culture unless coming from the very above will never take hold. I have seen times and times again that management promotes failing individuals that are likable ( because they never take risks) versus achieving individuals that do not “sell” themselves but simply achieve results, including by taking risks and sometimes failing. As a matter of fact, my entire career I see examples of the promotion by “likability” which might not be a bad thing at all in the eyes of immediate managers… Just visit a seminar at UC irvine, this is their pitch: “likable” get ahead… Also, when you get reciprocal, which is mainly a female trait, a lot of times this is taken for granted by males across the border. There is a study that states that young managing males are more likely to go into war instead of trying to negotiate. And wars are expensive for organizations… reciprocation, however, rarely happens… And the desire to help others is taken as “teaching”…In the sense,
how come she talks to me like that and teaches me what I already know?” There is also a common viewpoint that organizations have to be hierarchical in order make sure things happen, and hierarchies prevents change. Because hierarchy by definition is “the upper is always right”. And boy, no management really likes to look “stupid”… there is an opinion that mistakes undermine your manager’s authority, and as a matter of fact they do… by human nature… we as humans often assume subconsciously that since one made a mistake one did not have information, thus one lacked enough power cause information IS power… management has to constantly encourage making new things happen, and not necessarily people will be mistaken the first time, it depends n how much preparation time is given to investigate… sometimes there is enough information to do new things RIGHT… it is not about new, it is about complete understanding of consequences /risks…

Join The Conversation