6 Reasons Why Overachievers Frequently Under-deliver

Oct 3, 2013

As a fresh crop of recent college graduates hits the job market, big hiring enterprises are out to harvest the cream of the crop. Summa cum laud graduates from top-tier schools with focus, ambition, and confidence are ripe for the picking. After all, many of these dynamos possess the traits we look for in future leaders. But, be warned! A bodacious resume is not a true measure of future success.

Everyone knows the negative underpinnings of the term overachiever — and for good reason. Because of their painfully high personal standards, overachievers’ positive attributes can lend themselves to a variety of professional deficits. More and more, employers are discovering the paradox of perfectionism.

Here are six ways that overachievers compromise their work and their workplace.

They display an overwhelming need to please. As children, overachievers were praised and cherished because of their exceptional accomplishments. Grandparents showered them with gifts for good grades. Parents bragged about their scholarships. School administrators gave them special treatment. Besides the personal pressure of maintaining their prestige as bright, accomplished people, they have always felt responsible for the happiness of those who expected them to succeed.

As professionals, overachievers’ lifelong need to please puts them at risk of making inauthentic decisions regarding the industry, employer, or position they choose.

They fear failure. “Overachievers have an underlying fear of failure or a self-worth contingent upon competence,” says University of Rochester psychologist Andrew Elliot. “Rather than setting and striving for goals based on a pure desire to achieve, their underlying motivation impels them out into the world to avoid failure.” Overachievers are averse to the challenges and obstacles faced in any large-scale undertaking. And this fear can leads incredibly talented people to choose the safest — instead of the wisest — course.

They exhibit paralysis by analysis. Overachievers have a hard time prioritizing because everything is equally important. Choosing one project to focus on at the expense of another can cause tremendous turmoil. After all, there’s no excuse for being lax about any task, no matter how far down on the priority list.

This dilemma frequently causes overachievers to get stuck; it’s can be just too difficult to make those painful choices about what not to do perfectly. This type of wheel spinning is a drain on personal productivity.

Their course is set in stone. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of best-seller Eat, Pray, Love, said it best. “If you are brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting … then truth will not be withheld from you.” Unfortunately, overachievers frequently ride the momentum of their success even though they are moving toward an end point of which they have no interest. They are so unaccustomed to changing their course or taking a step back to achieve a new and exciting objective that they may never reach their optimal professional destiny. Take a look around any large organization and you will see the result of this fear and rigidity: geniuses performing without passion because they simply do not enjoy what they do.

They refuse help. According to Thomas J. DeLong and Sara DeLong’s article in the Harvard Business Review, “Many high performers would rather do the wrong thing well than the right thing poorly. And when they do find themselves in over their head, they’re often unwilling to admit it, even to themselves, and refuse to ask for help they need.” They are so set in their lofty self-image that they can’t fathom the appearance of being unsure.

Unfortunately, martyrs who work day and night to resolve an issue, thinking they are being industrious, are actually being inefficient. They might not consider the reality that asking for help when needed usually gets the job done faster and better.

They have little patience. Overachievers pride themselves on performance and productivity — the keys to their success. Some value these traits even more than reaching their goals. That’s why they can be quick to say “impossible” when they are faced with major challenges, especially those that take time and innovation. They just don’t want to take the time to figure out a new challenge because it will cut into their efficiency. The problem with this, according to Carold Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, “ … it takes time for potential to flower.”

The purpose of this analysis is two-fold: (1) Superstar overachievers on your staff may be carrying around a lot of baggage. In fact, according to Laurie Sullivan of, overachievers are prone to depression, unethical behavior, abusiveness, and a host of other problems. (2) Consider your standards carefully when building your team. After all, the greatest achievers are those who can recognize that their mistakes, imperfections and failures are all a part of being human. They aim for excellence in a realistic way and enjoy the journey as they strive for their goals.

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