High Achievers Beware: Avoid These 8 Common Traps

In many organizations, there are smart, ambitious professionals who aren’t as productive or satisfied as they could be.

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

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 won’t stray far from their comfort zone.

8. Guilt-ridden
No matter how much they accomplish, achievers believe it’s never enough. When they do complete a milestone, they never 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.

Breaking Out of Traps

Identify any of the eight traps into which you’ve fallen. Which traps escalate your anxieties and cause you to engage in unproductive behaviors?

Next, adopt new practices that give you the courage to step out of your comfort zone. This isn’t easy, and it won’t happen overnight. Many leaders require help from a trusted peer, mentor or coach.

If you’re smart and ambitious, you likely have a coach or mentor or have experience with one at some point in your career. It may be time to review or renew your coaching relationship.

Work with your coach or mentor on these six steps for freeing yourself from traps:

1. Forget the past
How much are you basing your career decisions on past experiences, either good or bad? Most of us make irrational comparisons between a past bad experience and a current situation. We are never in control of situations as much we think, and blaming or crediting ourselves is often irrational and inappropriate. What counts is stepping up to learn new tasks and skills. An open mind—one that is willing to admit limitations, as well as strengths—means you’re available for new challenges.

2. Develop and use your support network
When you pride yourself on being an independent self-starter, it’s difficult to ask for help. You tell yourself you don’t want to bother people unnecessarily. You may fear feedback because you don’t want to hear your work isn’t up to par. You may even choose to consult a colleague who’s going to tell you what you want to hear. If so, you’re hurting your chances of stretching and growing.

Instead, challenge yourself to ask respected individuals for regular feedback, even if it’s painful at first. Having a structured feedback plan makes it easier. Find a mentor who’s familiar with your work, and tell him you’d like to run something by him. Ask these three questions:

  • What should I stop doing?
  • What should I continue doing?
  • What should I start doing?

3. Become approachable in a high-achiever way
Learn to ask questions. Let people know you’re trying to explore different perspectives and that you’d like to learn their opinions or thoughts. Share small mistakes with others. When you practice acknowledging uncertainty or confessing to mistakes, you’re showing your human side. This makes you more approachable and trustworthy. When you open up to others, you send a powerful message. Others will reciprocate with their own stories, and they’ll be more willing to help you out.

4. Focus on the long term, but concentrate on next steps
Long-term success requires a willingness to take short-term risks. Fear of failure or of looking inept, however, can stop you from taking chances. You have to be willing to leave your comfort zone to complete the new tasks required for changing career demands. Long-term goals can withstand minor setbacks. Look at the big picture, and give yourself the necessary latitude to make a few missteps along the way.

5. Adopt a positive mindset
Recent studies reveal that a positive mindset is a prerequisite for success — not its byproduct. Try framing an assignment as a challenge instead of a problem, and you’ll be better able to think calmly and creatively. When your boss gives you extra work, you have two choices: feel put upon and overloaded, or take satisfaction in knowing she trusts you to get the job done.

6. Embrace humility, practice and patience

Doing the right thing poorly is painful at first but well worth the effort. Sure, it’s more satisfying to do something well, but think about the best use of your time. Routines and easy success can set you up for stagnation.

It’s a hard truth, but the talent and skills that got you “here” won’t take you “there.” As intelligent as you may be, you simply cannot know what you don’t know. Work with a mentor, coach or trusted advisor to support you as you experiment ousted of your comfort zone.

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