High-level professionals typically take pride in their work ethic — seeking to prove to their clients, their bosses and their coworkers that they’re ready to go the extra mile to find success. This can help them advance in their careers. It can also manifest in overtime hours, extra projects and a willingness to shift one’s social calendar to better accommodate work-related situations.
Employees who exhibit this drive are generally considered a hot commodity. Unfortunately, that can hold especially true for predatory companies, who take advantage of the underlying insecurities that result in overworked, stressed, and ultimately unhappy workers. If you’re an achiever with a tendency to underestimate your own skills, keep an eye out for these three warning signs that being an insecure overachiever is hurting you.
1. You find yourself in toxic work environments time and time again.
Some companies specifically seek out job candidates with “imposter syndrome” — and work them to the bone in a toxic work environment.
This isn't a coincidence. According to a recent study conducted by Laura Empson of the Harvard Business Review, certain companies orient their recruitment policies to attract a very particular type of candidate. Specifically, they’re looking for “insecure overachievers," or individuals who are “exceptionally capable and fiercely ambitious, yet driven by a profound sense of their own inadequacy."
Candidates with imposter syndrome, or a sense of self-doubt propelled by a fear that their successes are undeserved (and that those around them will soon discover that they aren’t as talented/smart/capable as they present), appeal to these companies because “they are entirely self-motivating and self-disciplining,” explains Empson. Workplaces that operate this way rely on their employees’ ingrained lack of self esteem to propel their achievement standards, which can prove valuable to the company in the short term.
2. You're constantly pushed to the point of burn out, making it hard to reach long-term goals.
By upping the pressure on employees with no concern for burn-out, some companies attract excellent short-term workers, but don’t invest in their long-term retention.
When interviewing sources for her Harvard Business Review study, Empson received the following response from a recruiter explaining his interest in “insecure overachievers”: “My theory is that the best client relationship builders in our firm are insecure. They are so hell-bent on making their clients feel good about them that they work overtime. Clients feel their passion and respond to that.”
Companies that consider an employee’s feelings of inadequacy a positive attribute will continue escalating the pressures and expectations, since they’re far more concerned with meeting short-term goals than with retaining long-term staffers. In these situations, employees generally follow one of two paths. They either leave the company prematurely as a reaction to poorly-addressed burn-out... or they decide to normalize their workplace dysfunction, which becomes easier when the overall company culture supports chronic overworking.
3. You feel in constant competition with your colleagues — and the pressure makes you behave in ways you aren't proud of.
Companies that manipulate achievers encourage the creation of workplace environments fueled by control and competition. If you’re working in an environment characterized by stress, intense pressure, and long hours, it probably didn’t get that way by accident. In fact, some businesses deliberately encourage a company culture that rewards unhealthy competition and time-management habits.
Empson discovered the following during her study: “The tendency to hard work is reinforced by the strong culture of social control created by elite professional organizations. On the one hand, this is comforting. Some professionals I have studied refer to their firms as being like a “family,” or something even more intense. As one consultant described it, “When I first came here, I thought, 'This place feels like a cult.' But now I have been here a while, I think it is great.” Taken to extremes, the insecure overachiever’s sense of commitment can lead to extreme conformity and the normalization of unhealthy behaviors.”
Empson points out that many insecure overachievers caught in these toxic work environments avoid placing the blame on their employers, instead convincing themselves that they have autonomy and are working overtime of their own volition. While that may technically be true, these companies create a vicious cycle wherein early-career workers accept the pressures applied by their bosses, and when they themselves rise into leadership roles, they continue to apply these unfair standards to their own junior workers.
So, how can you deal?
Empson urges insecure overachievers to carefully scrutinize their workplaces and to remember the following: “If you are a leader, you have a responsibility not just to your firm but to the people who work within it. Help your colleagues to achieve their full potential, but do not allow yourself to exacerbate and exploit their insecurities. And remember that your ultimate “duty of care” is to yourself.”
This article was written by a FGB Contributor.