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Are You An Insecure Overachiever?

Stressed businesswoman sitting in front of computer in the office.jpegLong hours - impossible deadlines - endless meetings.

Many of us face these challenges like super-heroes who can bravely conquer anything put in their way. We pride ourselves as we rise up and win the day.  This seems to be leading to a happy ending but what does the next day look like?

Long hours - impossible deadlines - endless meetings.

There is a pattern of overworking that seems to trap many of us. Why does this exist and how can we break it?

I remember being an undergraduate at The University of Michigan and taking a sociology course that covered the a wide range of societal impact changes taking place in post-modern America (ah – do you remember those innocent times when learning was important on its own and did not have to be part of a process towards earning a living).

In the class we read The Protestant Work Ethic and The Spirit Of Capitalism by Max Weber.

… the view that a person's duty is to achieve success through hard work and thrift, such success being a sign that one is saved.

The book put forward the compelling argument that the principles of the Protestant/Calvinist faith were key drivers in the growth of capitalism during the industrial age. It planted the seeds that told us that hard work, perseverance, and thrift will help bring you success.

 The thesis was mainly covering the industrial age where the labor force was moving from the fields to the factories. How did this work ethic transform into today’s modern workplace of intellectual capital? Well, in many ways we have the Protestant Work Ethic on steroids, cleansed of any religious overtones (who needs to be thrifty – I got credit).

I read an interesting Harvard Business Review article last week - If You’re So Successful, Why Are You Still Working 70 Hours a Week? – where the author Laura Empson talked about working incredibly long hours in professional services organizations (legal, accounting, consulting) is now the norm at all levels, not just for the junior firm members who are working for partnership or title.

Dr. Empson frames the story his way:

In the old days, if you were a white-collar worker, the deal was that you worked as hard as you could at the start of your career to earn the right to be rewarded later on, with security of tenure and a series of increasingly senior positions.

In professional organizations, such as law firms, accountancy firms, management consultancies, and investment banks, the prize was partnership. The competition was relentless, but once you won the prize, it was yours for keeps. Partners had autonomy to choose how and when to work and what to work on. Of course, some senior partners spent a surprising amount of their “business development time” on the golf course, but that was OK because they had already paid their dues to the organization.

This is no longer true.

What is true today is that the senior level partners is at the office as long as a junior associate. Empson’s research on the reasons why showed that insecurity was at the heart.

This started to hit close to home for me because I saw that my approach fit into this pattern.  

As one senior business unit leader in a law firm admitted to me: “I just come in here and work as hard as I can all the time. I feel like I’m doing a good job, but it’s hard to measure. That’s the nature of what we do: It’s feast or famine. And we all tend to be such insecure people that we’re all scared all the time.” 

Scared all the time. This started to hit home for me. Not only could I identify with it personally through various stages in my career but I have also seen it surface itself in the discussions with many of the outplacement candidates that I have worked with.

The 500 interviews I conducted for my book showed a pattern: A professional’s insecurity is rooted in the inherent intangibility of knowledge work. How do you convince your client that you know something worthwhile and justify the high fees you charge?

The insecurity caused by this intangibility is exacerbated by the rigorous “up or out” promotion system perpetuated by elite professional organizations, which turns your colleagues into your competitors. How do you convince your boss that you’re worth more than your closest colleague? There is no chance for a professional to rest on their laurels — or even to rest.

Like Max Weber research captured what were the key drivers for the emergence of capitalism in the industrialized world, Laura Empson’s research today captures what is and will be driving the economic engine of tomorrow’s knowledge driven workplace – insecurity.

Exacerbating this problem, elite professional organizations deliberately set out to identify and recruit “insecure overachievers” — some leading professional organizations explicitly use this terminology, though not in public.

Insecure overachievers are exceptionally capable and fiercely ambitious, yet driven by a profound sense of their own inadequacy. This typically stems from childhood, and may result from various factors, such as experience of financial or physical deprivation, or a belief that their parents’ love was contingent upon their behaving and performing well. 

Dr. Empson points out that elite organizations (blue-chip law firms, Wall Street, top consulting and tech firms to name a few) all have developing recruiting strategies and talent management programs addressing how to optimize the inputs of their insecure overachievers. These organizations are actually perfectly tailored for these types of individuals:

  • They selectively recruit and hire “only the best”
  • New employees are entered into classes of new employees where their progress will be measured against their peers.
  • The performance demands of the organization never stop. There is always a new software upgrade, a new merger or acquisition to push forward, or a business initiative that needs to be accelerated.

How do we change this?

First step is recognizing that it exists and understanding the reasons why. This is something (personal confession) that I have not been good at for myself. There is a great line from the movie The Departed that says ““What Freud said about the Irish is: We’re the only people who are impervious to psychoanalysis.”

Next step is to work at finding ways to break the pattern. Dr. Empson puts it this way:

Your insecurities may have helped to get you where you are today, but are they still working for you? Is it time to acknowledge that you have “made it” and to start enjoying the experience a little bit more? And if your boss is an insecure overachiever, recognize how they are projecting their insecurity onto you — how they make you feel insecure for not being able to keep up with them.

Work exceptionally long hours when you need to or want to, but do so consciously, for specified time periods, and to achieve specific goals. Don’t let it become a habit because you have forgotten how to work or live any other way.

Special thanks to:


Laura Empson is Professor in the Management of Professional Service firms at Cass Business School, University of London, and Senior Research Fellow at Harvard Law School.  She has devoted the past twenty-five years to researching and advising professional service firms on leadership, governance, and organizational change.  Her most recent book, Leading Professionals: Power, Politics and Prima Donnas (2017) is published by Oxford University Press.  Prior to becoming an academic she worked as a strategy consultant and investment banker.