Listen to Insecure Overachievers on BBC Radio 4 here. Presented by Laura Empson and produced by Jonathan Brunert.
"It feels like a constant need to prove you should be where you are, and a constant concern, before every meeting that I go to… am I going to make an idiot of myself here and are people going to see through a façade and think actually there’s no real substance to this?"
This is Jeremy Newman. Until recently, Jeremy was the global CEO of BDO, one of the world’s largest accounting firms. He currently chairs important government bodies and a range of other institutions. By any measure he is hugely successful in his professional life, and yet here he is, telling me that he privately worries constantly that he is not good enough.
He is not alone. In my 25 years of researching leadership and professional service firms (such as law and accountancy firms, consultancies and investment banks) I have heard numerous brilliant, successful, and apparently confident people describe themselves as insecure. They are ‘insecure overachievers’: exceptionally capable and fiercely ambitious, but driven by a profound belief in their own inadequacy.
Insecure overachievers are made, not born
When I wrote about insecure overachievers in my recent book, Leading Professionals: Power, Politics, and Prima Donnas, I got a phenomenal response from people worldwide, in a range of sectors, saying that they identified with the term. Insecure overachievers are made, not born, and typically in childhood, through experiencing psychological, financial, or physical insecurity. For example, children who experience sudden and unexpected poverty may find that, as adults, they are never able to earn enough to overcome their fear that this will happen again.
Some children grow up believing that they are noticed and valued by their parents only when they are excelling. This attitude may persist long after they have left home because they have internalised that insecurity as part of their identity.
It is no wonder that people like this have traditionally applied for jobs in elite professional firms – the kind of firms that have offered the most sought-after jobs for MBA graduates around the world. These firms, in effect, say to new recruits, “we’re the best in the business, and because you work for us, that makes you the best, too.” To people who doubt their own worth, that feels great – until they start worrying that they will be kicked out when they don’t live up to expectations.
The evaluation and reward systems within these firms make the fears very real. Promotion is highly competitive and – worse – opaque. Dr Alexandra Michel at the University of Pennsylvania has researched the lives and careers of investment bankers. She explains: “The reward at the end of the year depends on your evaluation in relation to others. And you don’t know what they’re producing. You just know that they’re super smart and that they’re working super hard.”
People know that they are being directly measured against their colleagues. But because they don’t actually know how their colleagues are doing, they set themselves incredibly high standards, just to be sure
People know that they are being directly measured against their colleagues. But because they don’t actually know how their colleagues are doing, they set themselves incredibly high standards, just to be sure. And because everyone in the system is doing this, the standards just get higher and higher, requiring everyone to work harder and harder.
For insecure overachievers, this pattern persists. During my research, a senior executive in a consulting firm described two colleagues, who “feel that I will say to them, ‘Sorry. You’re not performing. You have to leave’… So I say, ‘Are you crazy? Why don’t you go home earlier and think about your family?’ And they say, ‘No, no, no, no, I have to work.’” More junior employees see their leaders behaving in this way and assume that this is what will get them ahead. And so, the pattern is repeated and constantly reinforced.
Although it can be positive. As David Morley, until recently the global senior partner at leading global law firm Allen and Overy, likens the senior lawyer on a transaction to the ringmaster of a giant circus that’s going on around them. “And if you’re good at it and you enjoy it, that’s very stimulating,” he says. “You can render a large bill at the end which is paid by a grateful client and so you’ve got a very tangible number on the page illustrating the value that you’ve added. And then the phone rings and you’re on to the next one... It’s almost like a drug... this flow of excitement… and if you are good at it there are a lot of positive rewards that come from that."
However, taken to extremes, the long hours and being constantly driven to excel can lead to serious physical and mental health problems, ranging from simple exhaustion to chronic pain, addictions, eating disorders, depression and worse.
Don’t persist in a job that doesn’t suit you – quitting a job you “can’t cope with” is not a sign of failure but a sign of good sense and emotional maturity
So if you are an insecure overachiever, what can you do about it? As I have explained, the factors that create insecurity are based in childhood so there is little that you can do to influence that. However, you can influence how you respond to it.
First recognise your triggers. Notice the ways in which your organisation is trying to manipulate your behaviour and how you respond. Notice which of your colleagues are particularly likely to make you feel more anxious through their comments and actions – be ready to raise your psychological defences if necessary.
Second, define success in your own terms, not others'. If you are going to devote yourself, body and soul, to your work, choose a job where you stand the best chance of succeeding and enjoying what you do. Don’t persist in a job that doesn’t suit you – quitting a job you “can’t cope with” is not a sign of failure but a sign of good sense and emotional maturity.
And, third, respect the evidence of and celebrate your success. Once an insecure overachiever has achieved a goal, they tend to discount it quickly and set the bar even higher. So when you have achieved something, remember how concerned you were about not succeeding, how often you have succeeded in spite of these concerns, and challenge yourself to believe the evidence of your persistent pattern of success.
Laura Empson is professor in the management of professional service firms at Cass Business School, London, and a senior research fellow at Harvard Law School's Center on the Legal Profession. Her most recent book is Leading Professionals: Power, Politics, and Prima Donnas (Oxford University Press).
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