People at the top (however you define that) are more in need of support, coaching, or even just “an ear” than most, and yet they are the least likely to get it. High achievers are afraid to show any limitations. Asking for help – whatever that form takes – is to admit weakness, and our culture does not take kindly to ‘weak leaders’ who need help.
If we don’t expect them to need help, then I fear we are expecting too much of them, and, at the same time, we are creating a ‘vicious cycle’ from which we won’t escape.
The norms and mores of our society have created unrealistic expectations, and as a result we see smart, ambitious people who are less productive and satisfied than they should or could be. Anxiety about performance compromises progress, resulting in lower levels of risk-taking and plateauing careers.
It is not unusual to see high potential achievers avoiding tough projects so as to avoid failing, or being seen to fail, so that they do not mess up their image. In other words, many people would rather do the wrong thing well, than do the right thing poorly.
What’s the way out of this bind – this conspiracy of ‘under-achievement’?
Well, responsibility has to start with the individual. There has to be a recognition of one’s own fears, derailers and limiting beliefs. Coaching is a hugely powerful tool to help people towards that personal insight which is necessary before moving forward. From this state clarity emerges, and people start to recognise that they must be courageous and step out of the comfort zones they have been hiding within.
Progress is only achieved by taking on new learning experiences, and indeed failing at them. Being vulnerable, humble and open to learning are pre-requisites to success and continued attainment.
Here are some practical steps that you can take (courtesy of Thomas J. DeLong and Sara DeLong, the Paradox of Excellence, Harvard Business Review, Jun2011, Vol. 89, Issue 6)
Put the Past Behind You
Everyone’s had negative experiences when undertaking new challenges, but we tend to overplay past bad experiences and make irrational comparisons with our current situation. Painful memories can be put to work as aids to our improvement, rather than remain obstacles to change.
Use Your Support Network
High achievers are, typically, very independent and don’t consider that they need a lot of help. As they rise in organisations, they may become ever more reluctant to admit to fear, or confusion, or incompetence. They may also confide only in others who tell them what they want to hear, and not what they need to hear. So, seek honest feedback, genuinely and openly, from as wide a network as possible, however painful it may feel, and use it to learn and grow.
Become more comfortable with uncertainty or acknowledging mistakes with people who are close to you. There is a high chance that some of the people around you are also high achievers and have similar behavioural reactions as you, so when you make the brave step of being vulnerable, you set a great example to those around you that invites them to do the same.
Focus on the Long Term
Major goals can withstand interim setbacks. When you stay focused on the big picture, you can afford to give yourself some latitude to take a few wrong turnings or make a few mistakes. Long-term success requires willingness to commit to necessary short-term risks.