Carrie’s been working for Wally’s Widgets for six years. She’s good at her job, and feels connected to the company. When someone new starts, she’s the first to volunteer to help them learn the ropes. She’s happy to help out her colleagues when they’re overwhelmed or on deadline. You can also expect her to play a role organizing any office social event. “Can Do” Carrie’s an overachiever who makes a valuable contribution to her company.
Maybe you’ve guessed something else about Carrie. Yes, she’s also so very tired. Sometimes her work even suffers from her willingness to support everyone.
Carrie needs to learn how to achieve balance at work. Not the often touted work-life balance, though that could play a role. Instead, we’re talking about balancing cooperation, helpfulness, and productivity to stay sane and healthy at work.
Many people want to do well at work. Then there are those, like Carrie, who overachieve. They pride themselves on being a go-to employee. They’re the one others count on to step up when there’s a need. They will not only pick up any slack, they’ll also volunteer themselves for more responsibilities. How can anyone object? Yet there are drawbacks to being this type of individual at work. This article explores characteristics of overachievers, why it can be a damaging role to play, and how to regain a healthier balance.
What makes someone an overachiever?
Let’s be honest. Being stressed at work is often a badge of honor. Worse still, it’s the norm. In a Harvard Business Review study of professionals at a global law and accounting firm, the majority “described their jobs as highly demanding, exhausting, and chaotic, and they seemed to take for granted that working long hours was necessary for their professional success.” It probably sounds familiar.
The thing is there is an entire personality type that is even more likely to work long hours, reflexively volunteer for more work, and jump in to fill any perceived shortfall. Meet the overachiever.
Overachievers are determined, driven, and seem to have endless stores of energy. They can offer great value to an organization. Yet, without meaning to, these individuals (often women) stretch themselves too thin.
They could be chronic people pleasers. Sometimes they are perfectionists. They might be driven by feelings of insecurity or inadequacy. They may gain a sense of self-worth from accomplishing tasks and an ego boost from being needed. Generally, they get stuck in a vicious cycle of grinding away trying to meet increasingly mounting expectations. It all has drawbacks.
What are the downsides to overachieving?
There are several potential pitfalls of continually striving to do more, do better. These include:
- Burnout—This mental and physical exhaustion can undermine your wellbeing, productivity, and personal and professional success.
- Hostility—Your efforts to achieve and prove your worth could cause others to resent you or feel threatened by your offers to help.
- Perfectionism—If you’re driven by perfectionism, you could slow productivity because you are doing everything you can to achieve an unattainable target.
- Abuse—Others will take advantage of your people-pleaser tendencies and hand off tasks that you really have no reason to be doing.
- Lack of perspective—Overachievers often feel failures more intensely. You can set impossible goals and then feel frustrated that you’re not reaching them.
How to achieve balance at work
See what we did there? Yes, regaining balance between your desire to help and be a part of everything is its own achievement. By reining in your overachiever tendencies you can counter the pitfalls we just mentioned. So, how do you pull back, especially when you’ve already established yourself as a “Can Do Carrie.”
Learn to say “no”
You can still be someone who gets the work done, and a lot of it, too. But the goal is to adapt so that you are able to cooperate, collaborate, and help without being excessive. Practice saying “no” in new ways as you help the people around you shift their expectations of you:
- “Sadly, I have something else to work on.”
- “Thanks for thinking of me. I’m fully booked right now.”
- “I don’t have the bandwidth for that right now.”
- “I’m sorry, I can’t fit that in.”
Saying “no” is one method of setting boundaries. You might also self impose boundaries such as not working on evenings or weekends or turning down requests to join in on new projects or committees.
As you struggle with guilt and whatever other anxieties this approach may bring up, think about how much better the work you continue to do can be. You may even have fresh ideas to bring to the business when you’re focusing your energy more conscientiously.
You may need to explicitly communicate to the people who have grown to rely on you that you’re changing your patterns. By being honest and authentic about your struggle with overachieving, perfectionism, or people pleasing, you can create an opportunity for more meaningful connection with your colleagues. You’re no longer the seemingly super-human staff that they hate and/or envy. You’re someone who can try too hard from time to time.
Being assertive (e.g., saying “no” as discussed above) can earn you others’ respect. You may also improve your self-esteem as you reduce your stress and anxiety and stand up for yourself.
Challenge your assumptions
You might think you’ll only be successful or liked by your peers at work if you’re always stepping up to do more. But, do you have evidence for this belief? It can help to take a small test of one of your big assumptions.
For example, instead of offering to stay late with a colleague who is trying to crank out a big project, leave on time. The next day, stop at that colleague’s desk and check in. Pay attention. Does that person shun you, call you names, and complain that you’re the worst for not helping them do their work? They might. It can be difficult for people to adjust their expectations of an overachiever. But, if they do, remind yourself their behavior reflects more on them than on you.
You may also need to redefine success. If your idea of success is having a role to play in everything going on in the office, that’s not sustainable. Instead, try to think about what meaning you can find in your roles and responsibilities. Focus your efforts there instead.
An overachiever may have started on this path early on, even before they joined the workforce. It can help to take stock. Reflect on where and when your overachievement tendencies took root. Maybe you earned recognition as a child by getting straight A’s or scoring goals on the soccer team. Or you needed to please others to keep the peace in your childhood home.
Learning the root of your behaviors, then showing yourself compassion as you work to rebalance your efforts, can help.
Better balance employee experience
“Can Do Carrie” didn’t come out of this article looking so good. At least now, if you’re like her, you have ideas of how to achieve better balance. Still, it can make you feel better to know that employees aren’t the only ones responsible for an imbalance of priorities and productivity at work. Employers can also take their own steps to help stop people from stretching themselves too thin. We’ll cover those strategies in the next article in this series.
In the meantime, if you want to better understand your employees and their experiences, find out what Sogolytics can do for you.