6 Reasons Why Overachievers Frequently Under-deliver

As a fresh crop of recent college graduates hits the job market, big hiring enterprises are out to harvest the cream of the crop. Summa cum laud graduates from top-tier schools with focus, ambition, and confidence are ripe for the picking. After all, many of these dynamos possess the traits we look for in future leaders. But, be warned! A bodacious resume is not a true measure of future success.

Everyone knows the negative underpinnings of the term overachiever — and for good reason. Because of their painfully high personal standards, overachievers’ positive attributes can lend themselves to a variety of professional deficits. More and more, employers are discovering the paradox of perfectionism.

Here are six ways that overachievers compromise their work and their workplace.

They display an overwhelming need to please. As children, overachievers were praised and cherished because of their exceptional accomplishments. Grandparents showered them with gifts for good grades. Parents bragged about their scholarships. School administrators gave them special treatment. Besides the personal pressure of maintaining their prestige as bright, accomplished people, they have always felt responsible for the happiness of those who expected them to succeed.

As professionals, overachievers’ lifelong need to please puts them at risk of making inauthentic decisions regarding the industry, employer, or position they choose.

They fear failure. “Overachievers have an underlying fear of failure or a self-worth contingent upon competence,” says University of Rochester psychologist Andrew Elliot. “Rather than setting and striving for goals based on a pure desire to achieve, their underlying motivation impels them out into the world to avoid failure.” Overachievers are averse to the challenges and obstacles faced in any large-scale undertaking. And this fear can leads incredibly talented people to choose the safest — instead of the wisest — course.

They exhibit paralysis by analysis. Overachievers have a hard time prioritizing because everything is equally important. Choosing one project to focus on at the expense of another can cause tremendous turmoil. After all, there’s no excuse for being lax about any task, no matter how far down on the priority list.

This dilemma frequently causes overachievers to get stuck; it’s can be just too difficult to make those painful choices about what not to do perfectly. This type of wheel spinning is a drain on personal productivity.

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Their course is set in stone. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of best-seller Eat, Pray, Love, said it best. “If you are brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting … then truth will not be withheld from you.” Unfortunately, overachievers frequently ride the momentum of their success even though they are moving toward an end point of which they have no interest. They are so unaccustomed to changing their course or taking a step back to achieve a new and exciting objective that they may never reach their optimal professional destiny. Take a look around any large organization and you will see the result of this fear and rigidity: geniuses performing without passion because they simply do not enjoy what they do.

They refuse help. According to Thomas J. DeLong and Sara DeLong’s article in the Harvard Business Review, “Many high performers would rather do the wrong thing well than the right thing poorly. And when they do find themselves in over their head, they’re often unwilling to admit it, even to themselves, and refuse to ask for help they need.” They are so set in their lofty self-image that they can’t fathom the appearance of being unsure.

Unfortunately, martyrs who work day and night to resolve an issue, thinking they are being industrious, are actually being inefficient. They might not consider the reality that asking for help when needed usually gets the job done faster and better.

They have little patience. Overachievers pride themselves on performance and productivity — the keys to their success. Some value these traits even more than reaching their goals. That’s why they can be quick to say “impossible” when they are faced with major challenges, especially those that take time and innovation. They just don’t want to take the time to figure out a new challenge because it will cut into their efficiency. The problem with this, according to Carold Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, “ … it takes time for potential to flower.”

The purpose of this analysis is two-fold: (1) Superstar overachievers on your staff may be carrying around a lot of baggage. In fact, according to Laurie Sullivan of CBSNews.com, overachievers are prone to depression, unethical behavior, abusiveness, and a host of other problems. (2) Consider your standards carefully when building your team. After all, the greatest achievers are those who can recognize that their mistakes, imperfections and failures are all a part of being human. They aim for excellence in a realistic way and enjoy the journey as they strive for their goals.

Gail Tolstoi-Miller is the CEO and chief staffing strategist for Consultnetworx, a national consulting and staffing firm. In addition, she is the CEO of SpeedHIRE, the only nationwide targeted invitational recruiting event organization.


7 Comments on “6 Reasons Why Overachievers Frequently Under-deliver

  1. Thanks, Gail. Very practical and sensible. Another thing for firms to remember: if you require only superstars to be able to succeed, then you’re in a very precarious situation- you should have probably gone into some area where everything doesn’t have to be the very best and work perfectly for you to make money.


  2. The take home: all people need to be managed because they all come with their own limitations, of which they’re usually unaware or unwilling to admit. Interviewees should always ask how the company, and their potential direct supervisor, manages. Also they should assess themselves and realize what they prefer and what they respond best to in that respect. For example, I definitely don’t like asking for help. Knowing this and what it can lead to, I always like a manager who will force a regular touch base if need be to make sure I’m not going off the rails.

    Know thyself.

  3. Good perspective, Gail. Thanks.

    It’s also important for employers (hiring managers) to remember that more (smarts, energy, independence, objectivity, sociability, decisiveness, assertiveness, etc.) isn’t necessarily better. For each organizational role (f.k.a job) and for each measurement scale that predicts performance and learning in that particular role, there is a Goldilocks-like “just right” range of preference. Salesmen should be more intuitive and energetic than credit analysts. While general mental ability (GMA or g) has the highest predictive validity for job performance and job learning, being too smart for any given role can lead to boredom. The best hiring and performance results come when the individual and the role match up well within most of the role-relevant, validated preference ranges. Great selection processes make sure this happens.

  4. @ Richard M: Also well-said. In addition, a given position’s “Goldilocks-range” is likely to be dynamic over time- what may be right for the job in 2013 may no longer be right in 2016.


  5. @Keith. Absolutely correct.

    Job (role) preference ranges change with organization, manager, location, time, team (support) and other variables. As to the time dimension, the individual will likely retain his/her substantially immutable self, while gaining knowledge, as the role evolves to either reinforce (boost) or undermine (challenge) performance.

    Promotions require the same diligence that hiring decisions do.

  6. @ Richard M. Thank you. I think companies should try to assess how fast or slow changing they are, and proceed accordingly- however, I’d expect some companies might have very static areas and others might be constantly having to adapt, which makes things rather complicated….


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