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Why Overachieving At Work Is A Bad Idea

17 Oct 2022

Overachieving at work hardly ever pays off. In fact, it might end up costing you. Read this blog post to find out why that is the case!

Being an overachiever can actually end up doing more harm than good. This statement probably seems counterintuitive for many, but it is true more often than not.

The tendency to overachieve usually manifests itself in younger people. Among this demographic it is those with more school years under their belt who are the keenest overachievers.

But why exactly is overachieving bad? There are probably many who would thank their propensity to work harder than normal for their success. Indeed, working hard always leads to good results. But it may also distort your viewpoint. After all, you never know what might have been were you not to overachieve.

This blog post will argue that those striving to do more and better are more often than not worse off than those who do exactly what is expected of them. Of course, we do not dismiss excellency as a worthy pursuit, but for most of us finding that sweet spot between overachieving and doing enough should be the goal.

Overachieving Might Hold You Back

One of the gripes most people have with the education system is that it doesn’t always do a particularly good job of preparing kids for the real world. Usually the conversation concerns the subjects kids are taught, but tendency to overachieve stems from the rules-based nature of the education system.

The reason why overachieving may seem like a good idea is that in schools perfection equals following a strict, rules based formula to success.

The formula is simple – follow the rules, be a good student, do your homework, study hard, get good grades, and do extracurricular work on the side. In such a system, overachievers get the best results, get into the best colleges where they repeat the process till they graduate with honors and are celebrated by their professors and peers.

The problem is that this is what the academia deems a success, not what the employer wants. It’s nice that an employee knows calculus, but what matters more is that they get things done not in the theoretical realm, but in the real world. 

Overachievers are stymied by a bunch of factors. First, they expect rules and clear “right or wrongs” in the workplace while in most situations you have to keep moving instead of contemplating the right thing. Second, they want to achieve the best result, but fail to understand that in the real world “perfection” is more often than not subjective.

Finally, they are hamstrung, often paralyzed by lack of confidence and flexibility. Instead of free thinking, problem-solving and confidence in their own ideas and decisions, they get caught up in others’ expectations. 

This is not breaking news. A 1995 study by Karen Arnold outlines just this conundrum – overachieving in school does not lead to outsized success in life.

Overachievers Tend To Be People Pleasers

9 times out of 10 overachieving is at least to some degree connected to a desire to please others. Regardless of why you want to please others, you end up taking on too much work and stress. This, in turn, is a sure fire way to personal or professional burnout.

To avoid this negative outcome, overachievers should understand where this tendency to please others stems from. These could include:

  • their too-agreeable character (lack of assertiveness and ability to say no);
  • some perceived flaw they are trying to compensate (for instance, less experience than colleagues) or general feelings of inadequacy;
  • a real or perceived prejudice that forces them to overperform (for example, a single hispanic woman may feel she has to prove more if in a team of white men).

Once you’ve understood why exactly you want to please others, you can start finding solutions. For example, if it’s your increased levels of agreeableness, invest in assertiveness training. If it’s a perceived flaw you want to compensate, just don’t! If you were hired, you are good enough. 

In any case, bring this up with your manager – explain the problem and try to find a common solution. Sure, you can drop your people pleasing and overachieving just like that and it’s fine, but if you’ve done it long enough, others may have developed expectations and routines around that. A good manager will adapt, but giving them a heads up is probably a good idea.

Overachieving Does Not Make Good Leaders

Now this might be a controversial statement, but let me explain. There are, indeed, some people who have reached peaks of success because they were overachievers. Likewise, some degree of devotion to work, high quality, and performance is definitely good.

The problem, however, is twofold. First, overachieving bosses think that they got where they are because of their overachieving nature. For them it’s their only formula for success. Naturally, they might implicitly or not expect this from their employees too. These are the kinds of bosses who don’t think extra hours or work on weekends without extra pay is anything special. 

Coincidentally these are also usually single men or women for whom work and party are the only two names in town. There is nothing wrong with doing this, of course. The problem stems from unreasonably high expectations for others who will likely have different priorities.

Second, overachievers who become bosses are likely to want to continue this way forward. This inevitably harms their ability to delegate effectively and increases the likelihood of micromanagement. As we discussed in a previous blog post, micromanagement is bad for team productivity and morale, as well as organization’s growth and internal culture.

Work-Life Balance In The Gutter

Overachieving at work will logically lead to more time and resources spent at it. While some people may not mind it, it takes a toll on most. This usually comes in the form of bruised relationships, less time for your interests, and poorer health.

In fact, overachieving may actually cost you quite dearly. Literally! Bosses hardly ever notice or appreciate the extra work being done, so a pay bump is not always an obvious outcome. In the meantime you end up ordering expensive or unhealthy takeout, exercising less, and worrying more about the work you do. These amount to extra immediate costs (food) as well as down-the-road expenses in the form of physical or mental therapy not to mention medicine bills.

All of this is not to mention the time not spent with friends and loved ones. We all have limited time on this earth and for most of us there is only one thing that will outlast us – our loved ones. Instead of devoting an increasing amount of time to work, use it for what matters most.

In The End - Not Much Productivity Gain

Most overachievers tend to be perfectionists. They like to polish their work to the very finest detail at the expense of doing what is expected. Sure, mediocrity is not a hallmark for success, but trying to reach perfection is also unreasonable. Why? Well because there is no such thing as objective perfection. What might be perfect to you, will seem less acceptable to your boss that what was initially expected.

In the end, overachievers can be hit by a double whammy – they get less done both at work and in personal life while actually not being appreciated for the extra work they put in. Seems like a pretty rotten deal.

Instead overachievers should prioritize, set small tasks, and delegate, if possible, to get more done. If you have a problem with a specific type of work task, talk to your management about changing things around so that you can focus on more strategic matters instead of menial work. Work smart, not hard!

Author: Lote Steina

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Life doesen't have a do-over.
Commit to it! BePrime!
Life doesen't have a do-over.
Commit to it! BePrime!