DISCUSSION The wider impact of insecure overachievers

by Michael Wise _______30th September 2018
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Listening to the BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘Insecure Overachievers’ brought forth a number of thoughts – ruminations on memories one has of various, let’s say, scenarios that have developed in the workplace over the years. You don’t get to be a certain age without experiencing grievance, recrimination and/or confrontation; although, if your instinct is to shy away from the latter, then the former will fester like cheese long forgotten in the back of the fridge.

‘Insecure Overachievers’ observed a particular mentality and while it was interesting to a point, there was nothing particularly revealing about its insights. Moreover, it completely glossed over some important consequences.

In essence, it tried to reveal – with mixed results – the soft, vulnerable underbelly of the corporate high flyer: the breed apart who strive with Herculean effort and, undoubtedly, no little talent to get to where they want to go. Yet, as all such stories tell us, getting there is the easy bit: it’s the staying there that’s hard. “It’s a highly competitive world,” said one of the interviewees, not inaccurately.

There were stories aplenty about working ungodly hours, looking over one’s shoulder and worrying about ‘burnout’. It was said that companies create exactly the right conditions for shoulder-barging and back-stabbing behaviour and yet, because the prestige and rewards are so great, there’ll always be plenty willing to play the game.

As mentioned, there’s nothing new or particularly revealing in any of this. We all know the game, because it’s the same one – essentially – as that played in the school playground. Some people are like that and others aren’t; some thrive and others fall by the wayside, although one can argue that absolutely everyone – to a lesser or greater extent – suffers in some way (hence the title of the programme).

Problems are caused when the wrong people – unsuited, either in terms of their skills, their temperament, or both – choose to play, and when people are pushed, or push themselves, too hard, too quickly. But there is another, greater, problem – occurring when such people rub up against others in the workplace. The latter group is, of course, much larger.

Here lies the crux: who, in the latter group, hasn’t felt the annoyance, frustration, anger even, that comes from having to deal with a person, invariably in a position of authority – because that’s the whole point anyway – who takes it too far: imposing themselves; making unreasonable demands; being rude (or passive aggressive)? The person who might, by their actions – and even by their intent – reduce a person to a state of embarrassed paralysis.

This is not to say that all ‘insecure overachievers’ are like that. But if an environment places inordinate strain on a person, then that strain is bound to show at times, and not necessarily in nice ways. Alas, it’s human nature. Yet the sum total of such fissures can create a San Andreas-style fault line cutting through a large employer.

The radio programme made no mention of any of this. Instead, the focus was on the fall-out experienced by those who choose to play the game: the insecure overachievers at the very top of the corporate world. It doesn’t take a great leap to imagine the tip of an iceberg – a more insidious phenomenon felt lower down the hierarchy, spreading much farther and wider. Most likely, the BBC was simply catering for the interests of a Radio 4 audience.

The documentary did suggest that, at the very top at least, attitudes might be changing. “We recognise that to do a good job for you, our lawyers have to be well,” said Nigel Jones, a former magic circle lawyer who now chairs the City Mental Health Alliance. “And that was partly proactive, but increasingly clients are demanding that.”

Insecure overachievers are always going to be there, yet the phenomenon seems worse now, fostered by a work culture in which there are never too many hours in a day, days in a week and weeks in a year. Factor in the short-termism that also prevails and we can clearly see how a certain attitude proliferates. Clearly, the sense is that the short-term gains are worth the long-term consequences. Yet the longer people act this way, the more egregious behaviours will become. And, sadly, fewer will be the number of those who recall a time when it didn’t have to be that way.

The race to the top needs to be less frenetic, allowing those who take part the time to pause and reflect, while also making the game more attractive to those with plenty to offer, but who have a different disposition and perspective. One also wonders too, whether the whole workplace machismo culture is somehow a consequence of the emphasis wider culture places on youth; if people reach the top later in life, what effect might the accumulation of a deeper reservoir of life experience and wisdom have, to the benefit of company stewardship, ethics and work culture in general?

But in the meantime, back to that fault line. While we can assume that HR will always do its best to heal the fissures, the feeling is that it can only do so much. And while we can also assume that insecure overachievers are living, breathing, covetous examples of the Pareto principle, is that any justification to act out? Perhaps the best thing to do is to look at them in the way the programme presented them: as insecure human beings. They’re not necessarily bad people; they’re just…y’know…in a hurry. Alas, we live in a world of anxious neurotics.

So have a bit of sympathy for them, and remember that it’s okay to say ‘No’ to their demands when they become overbearing. Adults say ‘No’. You have a life to lead, and perhaps it’s a richer one than theirs.

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