LEADERSHIP : The curse of the overachiever

The desire to achieve is major source of strength in business, both for individual managers and for the teams they led. It generates passion and energy, which fuel growth and help companies sustain performance over the long term.
And the achievement drive is on the rise. We’ve spent 35 years assessing executive motivation, and we’ve seen steady increase during the past decade in the number of managers for whom achievement is the primary motive. Businesses have benefited from this trend: Productivity has risen, and innovation, as measured by the number of patents issued per year, has soared.
In the short term, through sheer drive and determination, overachieving leaders may be very successful, but there’s dark side to the achievement motive. By relentless focusing on tasks and goals – revenues or sales targets, say – an executive can, over time, damage performance. Overachievers tend to command and coerce, rather than coach and collaborate, thus stifling subordinates. They take frequent short-cuts and forget to communicate crucial information, and they may be oblivious of the concerns of others. Their teams’ performance begins to suffer and they risk missing the very goals that initially triggered the achievement-oriented behaviour.
Too intense focus on achievement can demolish trust and undermine morale, measurably reducing workplace productivity and eroding confidence in management, both inside and outside the corporation. While profits and innovation have risen during the past decade, public trust in business has slid. In our executive coaching practice, we’ve seen very talented leaders crash and burn as they put ever more pressure on their employees and themselves to produce.
At the extreme are leaders like Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling, classic overachiever by most accounts, driven by results regardless of how they were achieved. He pitted manager against manager and once even praised an executive who went behind his back to create service he had forbidden her to develop. For every Skilling, there are dozens of overachieving managers who don’t make headlines, but do cause significant harm.
On the surface, controlling achievement overdrive sounds like Management 101: Be less coercive and more collaborative. Influence rather than direct. Focus more on people and less on numbers and results. Easy to say, difficult to master. Experienced, successful executives who should know better fall into overachievement mode again and again.

The drive to achieve
The drive to achieve is tough to resist. Most people in Western cultures are taught from early childhood to value achievement. For some people, the drive seems innate: They don’t just know achievement is important, they feel it. Accomplishment is natural high for them.
David McClelland, the late Harvard psychologist, identified achievement – meeting or exceeding standard of excellence or improving personal performance – as one of three internal drivers that explain how we behave (‘affiliation’, or relationships, and ‘power’ are the other two). He initially believed that of the three, achievement was the most critical to organisational success.
But McClelland also recognised the downside of achievement: the tendencies to cheat and cut corners and to leave people out of the loop. Some high achievers “are so fixated on finding shortcut to the goal”, he noted, “that they may not be too particular about the means they use to reach it”.
In later work he argued that the most effective leaders were primarily motivated by socialised power: they channelled their efforts into helping others become successful.
We continued McClelland’s work with assessments of managers’ motives. Beginning in the mid-1990s, achievement scores began rising dramatically, while the power drive declined and the affiliation stayed more or less steady.
We can’t say exactly what triggered the increase, but we believe it was driven by the organisational, market and economic forces that were in play. Recession and downsizing brought an increased emphasis on short-term performance and growth. Again, both goals were perfect fit for the high achievers, who revel in the need for personal heroics and the challenge of an ever-rising performance bar.
Whatever the cause, the rise in scores coincided with increases in several of McClelland’s other indicators of high achievement – in particular, economic growth, innovation, cheating, and cutting corners. Organisational performance and innovation improved. But there was also lapse in business ethics and, as result, more high-profile scandals and reduced public trust in big corporations.

The six styles of leadership
Despite the advantages of an achievement mentality, executives who are overly motivated to achieve can weaken company’s or group’s working climate and, in turn, its ability to perform well. That’s because leader’s motives affect the way he or she leads. In our research over the years we’ve identified six styles of leadership that managers and executives use to motivate, reward, direct and develop others. They are directive (strong, sometimes coercive), visionary, affiliative, participative, pacesetting (personal heroics) and coaching.
There is no one best style of leadership. Each has its strengths and its limits.
The most effective leaders are adept at all six leadership styles and use each when appropriate. Typically, however, manager defaults to the styles he or she is most comfortable using, preference that reflects the person’s dominant motive combined with the level of pressure in the workplace. People motivated mainly by achievement tend to favour pacesetting in low-pressure situations but to become directive when the pressure is on.
It’s not surprising that such pacesetting and coercion have been shown to suppress work-climate attributes that contribute to high performance, including flexibility, responsibility, team commitment and the extent to which feedback and reward are linked to performance. People high in socialised power, by contrast, naturally gravitate to coaching in low-pressure situations and become visionary under pressure.

Recognising your motives
The good news about achievers is that when given goal, they pull out all the stops to reach it – even if their goal is to manage their achievement drive. For an overachiever seeking to broaden his or her range, the first step is to become aware how motives influence leadership style. Often it takes nudge from someone to get the transformation moving.
If you are seeking to assess yourself as manager, you can get good sense of which drive is dominant in you simply by examining the activities you like and why.
People with high achievement drives tend to like challenging projects that allow them to accomplish something new. They also like to outperform people who represent high standard of excellence. Achievers’ communications tend to be brief and to the point.
Those high in affirmation are energised by personal relationships, are driven by status and image.
Those driven by socialised power enjoy making positive impact and get satisfaction from helping people feel stronger and more capable.

Managing your motives
Even trickier and more important than recognising an overactive drive to achieve is to figure out how to channel that drive into new behaviours and continually practise them until they become almost second nature.
Another trick is to look to other areas of your life to satisfy your achievement drive. One executive, recognising that his need to succeed was getting in the way of his effectiveness, refocused his drive on building violins at home on his weekends. Another turned to restoring antique sports cars.
While behaviour is the responsibility of the individual, organisations play role, if sometime unintentionally, in influencing executives’ actions. Some companies unabashedly create cultures that foster and reward the achievement-at-all-costs mentality.

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