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How to Break Out of the Eight Traps of High Achievers

I was recently working with one of my San Francisco Bay Area executive coaching clients – the president of a professional services firm. We talked about how he could break out of the eight traps of high achievers.

My executive coaching client and I discussed how it is more important to focus on success and fulfillment than perfection. I am coaching my client to overcome the eight traps of high achievers, and focus more on success than perfection.

High performers exhibit eight typical behaviors, write Thomas J. and Sara DeLong in “The Paradox of Excellence” (Harvard Business Review, June 2011):

1.  Driven to achieve results: Achievers don’t let anything get in the way of goal completion. But they can become so caught up in tasks that colleagues get pushed aside. Transparency or helping others feels like a waste of valuable time.

2.  Doers: Because nobody can do it as well or as quickly as they can, they drift into poor delegation or micromanagement.

3.  Highly motivated: Achievers take their work seriously, but they fail to see the difference between the urgent and the merely important—a potential path to burnout.

4.  Addicted to positive feedback: Achievers care how others perceive them and their work, but they tend to ignore positive feedback and obsess over criticism.

5.  Competitive: Achievers go overboard in their competitive drive; they obsessively compare themselves to others. This leads to a chronic sense of insufficiency, false calibrations and career missteps.

6.  Passionate about work: Achievers feed on the highs of successful work but are subject to crippling lows. They tend to devote more attention to what’s lacking (the negative), rather than what’s right (the positive).

7.  Safe risk takers: Because they are so passionate about success, they shy away from risk and the unknown. They won’t stray far from their comfort zone.

8.  Guilt-ridden: No matter how much they accomplish, achievers believe it’s never enough. They want more. When they do complete a milestone, they don't take the time to savor the moment. They expect to be successful, so they deny themselves the chance to fully appreciate the joy of achievement.

Breaking Out of Traps

First, take a hard look at yourself. Identify any of the eight traps into which you’ve fallen. Which traps escalate your anxieties and cause you to engage in unproductive behaviors?

Next, adopt new practices that give you the courage to step out of your comfort zone. This isn’t  easy, and it won’t happen overnight. Many leaders require help from a trusted peer, mentor or coach.

It’s a hard truth, but the talent and skills that got you “here” won’t take you “there.” Your best thinking may not be enough. As intelligent as you may be, you simply cannot know what you don’t know.

If you’re smart and ambitious, you likely have a coach or have experience with one at some point in your career. It’s time to review or renew your coaching relationship.

Work with your coach or mentor on these six steps for freeing yourself from traps:

1.  Forget the past: How much are you basing your career decisions on past experiences, either good or bad? Most of us make irrational comparisons between a past bad experience and a current situation. We are notoriously poor predictors of our future emotional states.

Most of what we surmise about our past failures is circumstantial. Look at the past with a different perspective — one that takes into account randomness or luck.

We are never in control of situations as much we think, and blaming or crediting ourselves is often irrational and inappropriate. Sure, we’ve accomplished a lot, and we’ve made mistakes. That was then; this is now.

What counts is stepping up to learn new tasks and skills. An open mind — one that is willing to admit limitations, as well as strengths — means you’re available for new challenges. You’ve conquered your fear of making new, and inevitable, mistakes.

Too much reliance on the past will stifle your courage to “fail upward” and use missteps as learning opportunities for growth.

2. Develop and use your support network: When you pride yourself on being an independent self-starter, it’s difficult to ask for help. You tell yourself you don’t want to bother people unnecessarily.

You may fear feedback because you don’t want to hear your work isn’t up to par. You may even choose to consult a colleague who’s going to tell you what you want to hear. If so, you’re hurting your chances of stretching and growing.Instead, challenge yourself to ask respected individuals for regular feedback, even if it’s painful at first.

Having a structured feedback plan makes it easier. Find a mentor who’s familiar with your work, and tell him you’d like to run something by him. Ask these three questions:

a.  What should I stop doing?

b.  What should I continue doing?

c.  What should I start doing?

3.  Become approachable in a high-achiever way: Learn to ask questions. Doing so doesn’t imply you’re ignorant, as long as you phrase them correctly. Let people know you’re trying to explore different perspectives and that you’d like to learn their opinions or thoughts.

Share small mistakes with others. When you practice acknowledging uncertainty or confessing to mistakes, you’re showing your human side. This makes you more approachable and trustworthy.

When you open up to others, you send a powerful message. Others will reciprocate with their own stories, and they’ll be more willing to help you out.

4.  Focus on the long term,but concentrate on next steps: Long-term success requires a willingness to take short-term risks. Fear of failure or of looking inept, however, can stop you from taking chances.

You have to be willing to leave your comfort zone to complete the new tasks required for changing career demands. Long-term goals can withstand minor setbacks. Look at the big picture, and give yourself the necessary latitude to make a few missteps along the way.

5.  Adopt a positive mindset: Recent studies reveal that a happy, positive mindset is a prerequisite for success — not its byproduct. When you approach a project by focusing on what’s good about it, you set yourself up for great results.

Try framing an assignment as a challenge instead of a problem, and you’ll be better able to think calmly and creatively. When your boss gives you extra work, you have two choices: feel put upon and overloaded, or take satisfaction in knowing she trusts you to get the job done.

6.  Embrace humility, practice and patience: Doing the right thing poorly is painful at first but well worth the effort. Sure, it’s more satisfying to do something well, but think about the best use of your time. Routines and easy success can set you up for stagnation.

To move your game to the next level or in a new direction, be willing to exhibit vulnerability and even humility. Professional growth takes practice and patience. Most of us need to move beyond our comfort zones to enjoy continued success.

Are you working in a professional services firm or other organization where executive coaches provide leadership development to grow emotionally intelligent leaders? Does your organization provide executive coaching for high achiever leaders? Enlightened leaders tap into their emotional intelligence and social intelligence skills to create a more positive culture.

One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself is “Am I caught in any of the traps of high achievers?” Emotionally intelligent and socially intelligent organizations provide executive coaching as part of their peak performance leadership development program.

Working with a seasoned executive coach and leadership consultant trained in emotional intelligence and incorporating assessments such as the Bar-On EQ-I, CPI 260 and Denison Culture Survey can help free you form any of the 8 traps of high achievers. You can become a leader who models emotional intelligence and social intelligence, and who inspires people to become fully engaged with the vision, mission and strategy of your company or law firm.

About Dr. Maynard Brusman

Dr. Maynard Brusman is a consulting psychologist, executive coach and trusted advisor to senior leadership teams. He is the president of Working Resources, a leadership consulting and executive coaching firm. We specialize in helping San Francisco Bay Area companies and law firms assess, select, coach, and retain emotionally intelligent leaders. Maynard is a highly sought-after speaker and workshop leader. He facilitates leadership retreats in Northern California and Costa Rica. The Society for Advancement of Consulting (SAC) awarded Dr. Maynard Brusman "Board Approved" designations in the specialties of Executive Coaching and Leadership Development.

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