The difference between high performers and overachievers is balance.
At a glance
- Overachieving employees are efficient, capable and committed, but the constant drive to exceed expectations is unsustainable and can prove harmful.
- Overachievement can stem from a lack of self-awareness. Experts recommend open questions and active listening to help employees recognise their internal drivers and identify ways of reaching goals in a healthy, sustainable way.
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High performers are competent, self-aware and emotionally intelligent and play to their strengths. “They’re doing the right things, in the right way, at the right time, in a way that’s comfortable for them,” says leadership expert Stacey Ashley.
Overachievers, on the other hand, push themselves in ways that are uncomfortable, she says. “They’re going beyond their own boundaries – not just into the stretch zone, but into the panic zone. That’s very stressful.”
Overachievement is often implicitly encouraged, because it gets results.
Laura Empson, researching the phenomenon of overwork for her book Leading Professionals, found that professional organisations often recruit “insecure overachievers”, who are “exceptionally capable and fiercely ambitious, yet driven by a profound sense of their own inadequacy”.
Such employees are willing to work long hours and deliver outstanding results in the short term.
Over the long term, however, overachievement can harm individuals, teams and organisations. Among the red flags identified by business coach Barbara Kaufman are attrition, low morale, underdeveloped staff and a reluctance to promote from within.
Signs you may be an overachiever
1. You prioritise outcomes over people.
David McClelland, the pioneering Harvard psychologist whose Human Motivation Theory identified achievement as one of three primary drivers of behaviour, recognised the dark side of humans’ desire to achieve: the tendencies to take shortcuts and engage in unethical conduct.
As leaders, “overachievers tend to command and coerce, rather than coach and collaborate, thus stifling subordinates”, write Scott Spreier, Mary H. Fontaine and Ruth Malloy in Leadership Run Amok: The Destructive Potential of Overachievers.
“By relentlessly focusing on tasks and goals – revenue or sales targets, say – an executive or company can, over time, damage performance.”
2. You don’t delegate.
Delegation is absent from the overachiever’s toolkit. In their quest to excel, overachievers prefer to do everything themselves rather than entrust others with responsibilities.
A lack of trust in the ability of others can have a wide range of consequences, from an unmanageable workload for the overachiever to a lack of skill development among staff, which can lead to poor engagement and performance across organisations.
3. You don’t say “no”.
An overachiever takes on extra work beyond what is required in their role, which leaves them perpetually overcommitted, says executive coach Lisa Stephenson. “They’re the people who put their hands up to be involved in everything.”
4. You work long hours.
Overachievers are often the first to log on in the morning and the last to leave at the end of the day. In an article titled If You’re So Successful, Why Are You Still Working 70 Hours a Week?, Empson acknowledges that working long hours is often necessary.
“Work exceptionally long hours when you need to or want to, but do so consciously, for specified time periods, and to achieve specific goals,” she writes. “Don’t let it become a habit because you have forgotten how to work or live any other way.”
5. You suffer from burnout.
Inevitably, the long hours and excessive workload will take a toll on wellbeing. “You can only be an overachiever for a certain amount of time, depending on how resilient you are,” says Stephenson.
“Overachieving has an expiration date – I always say being an overachiever is going to bite you somewhere. It might be your health, your ability to sleep, your wellbeing or your relationships.”
How to manage overachievers
A manager can help an employee traverse the fine line between overachievement and high performance by helping them apply their formidable energy and effort more effectively and constructively, says Ashley, who recommends adopting a coaching approach to help develop self-awareness around what motivates them.
Ashley recommends using a combination of open questions and active listening to help the employee recognise their internal drivers and how they can fulfil their desire for achievement in a way that supports both the team and organisation more broadly and aligns with their personal goals.
Stephenson suggests encouraging overachievers to be less self-critical.
“Overachievers are very hard on themselves, so give them validation and feedback on the things they are doing really well,” she says.
What to do if you are an overachiever
If you suspect you may be an overachiever, seek feedback from others.
Overachievement often stems from a lack of self-awareness. “Often, the overachiever’s sense of self and performance is out of alignment with how others experience them,” writes Kaufman, who proposes using climate surveys, employee satisfaction surveys and 360-degree evaluations to identify instances of overachievement.
Kaufman suggests several strategies leaders can apply to mitigate the negative consequences of overachieving, such as triaging tasks to assess their importance before assigning non-crucial tasks – those that require a B rather than an A+ – to other team members.
Resist the temptation to redo others’ work and coach team members in areas of their performance that require improvement. Consult rather than command and communicate strategic goals to the team to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Pay attention to work–life balance, advises Stephenson. “High performance is about sustainability. If you think you’re an overachiever, it’s possible that you need to schedule time and learn habits... to give you balance. Remember that your brain and body need stillness just as much as activity.”