How ‘insecure overachievers’ can calm down

THERE are plenty of reasons employees might be feeling more insecure at work these days: Fears that generative artificial intelligence (AI) could wipe out our jobs; mass layoffs; the rise of remote work and, with it, ever-shifting return-to-office policies. It’s not surprising that rates of workplace stress and anxiety have measurably increased post-pandemic. 

And some employers prefer it this way. 

Laura Empson, a professor at London’s Bayes Business School and author of Leading Professionals, has repeatedly called out elite companies for intentionally recruiting and hiring what talent professionals have called “insecure overachievers:” talented, hard-working people driven by their fears of inadequacy. 

That’s because such employees can be a dream to manage: A boss’s role might consist of simply aiming them in the right direction and watching them excel. 

Never finished proving themselves, these ambitious strivers look to their employers for affirmation. They take comfort in working for brand-name businesses, finding the prestige reassuring. The strong company cultures at elite institutions initially feel comforting — there’s a reason “cult” and “culture” stem from the same root word. 

They are self-motivating and self-disciplining. They “never rest on their laurels — or even rest,” as Empson has written. Employers love their commitment. 

“There is a sense that anxious achievers will deliver because they feel like their self-worth is on the line,” adds Morra Aarons-Mele, author of The Anxious Achiever. That can spur incredible results. 

But anxiety can also sometimes get in their way, Aarons-Mele says, driving them to a level of perfectionism that results in fuzzy priorities and missed deadlines. “Sometimes anxious achievers can trip themselves up,” she says. “And I speak from experience.” 

If you fall into this camp, you may already be recognising yourself. Maybe you get glowing performance ratings yet worry you’re about to be fired. Maybe you think your family’s affection or approval hinges on your success. Maybe you feel the need to overdeliver to justify how much you bill for each six-minute increment. Maybe people tell you to “lower your standards” or “remember what’s most important.” And maybe burn-out is starting to feel like a way of life. 

But even if this sounds familiar, says Svenja Weber, a professor at INSEAD business school, it’s a mistake to put the focus only on employees, rather than workplace dynamics; stress and anxiety can spread like weeds in companies with up-or-out policies and hard-to-measure outcomes. “

If the only results that matter are tomorrow’s, and if you are only as valuable as clients and colleagues judge you to be, then being an insecure over-achiever is not a pathology,” she writes in an article coauthored with colleague Gianpiero Petriglieri. “It is a necessity.” 

Freeing oneself isn’t as easy as quitting. Too often, insecure over-achievers replicate the conditions they fled — something Empson admits happened to her when she left investment banking and strategy consulting for academia. It’s the only way they know to be successful. 

“If we really want to look at change, we need to understand our complicity in the status quo,” says Weber. 

It can be hard to tell where company culture ends and our own choices begin. Workers conform to the culture and, in so doing, strengthen it. Empson tells a story of a board meeting she attended where a London-based organisation was discussing their corporate wellness initiative and the problems of employee burnout. Although the meeting overlapped with one executive’s family vacation in Australia, he set an alarm for the middle of the night and called in. The irony was lost on the people in the room, even as the exhausted man fell asleep — as made clear by the snoring emanating from the speakerphone. 

“The important thing is to flip it so that you are no longer a victim of the dynamic, says Empson. “Then you can start to make choices.” That might include recasting a colleague who works long hours not as competition, but as inefficient. Or recognising when anxiety is driving unrealistic standards. On days you’re convinced you’re utterly failing, try looking at the data: What does the evidence say? 

Even better would be for managers and senior executives — and clients, who have the most leverage — to question their own assumptions. Does this project truly require three months at the client site? Do all-nighters really pay off? A good boss dampens insecurities rather than heightening them. Instead of praising employees who overdeliver, managers should point out when a colour-coded spreadsheet or a 100-slide PowerPoint was a poor use of precious time. 

It’s entirely possible to foster a culture that is both caring and high achieving; where tough feedback is delivered compassionately and big goals are accompanied by high levels of support. Unfortunately for insecure overachievers, too many companies still don’t get that. 

People can’t help but take work personally — it’s our career, after all. But the irony is that we might thrive more if we were capable of a bit more detachment. If our self-worth weren’t on the line. If we could let our insecurities motivate us just enough — but no further. — Bloomberg

  • This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition