• 27 Jun 2011
  • Research & Ideas

Recovering from the Need to Achieve

 
 
In his new book, Flying without a Net: Turn Fear of Change into Fuel for Success, HBS professor Thomas J. DeLong explores the world of "high-need-for-achievement professionals" or HNAPs—those for whom the constant, insatiable need to achieve can lead to anxiety and dysfunction. Plus: book excerpt. Key concepts include:
  • Instead of happiness or well-being, high-need-for-achievement professionals seek "relief in the accomplishment of tasks." This creates a vicious cycle marked by a lack of a real sense of purpose.
  • Four characteristics define an HNAP: comparing, busyness, worrying, and blaming.
  • DeLong calls for HNAP readers to take the following steps toward recovery: stop and reflect with self-awareness, let go of the past, create a vision or specific goal with an agenda, seek support through mentors and a network, don't blink (or fall back on old behaviors), and purposefully expose themselves to vulnerability.
 
 
by Kim Girard

We all know "Joe." He's the guy who leaves his coat on his chair so the boss thinks he worked all night. He boasts loudly in the break room about how much time he spends zigzagging the planet for work. He pretends to listen to you while he's jabbing away at his BlackBerry. He worries why his office isn't as big as Jenny's. And he blames others when he screws up.

Joe is an HNAP, or a high-need-for-achievement professional, according to Harvard Business School professor Thomas J. DeLong, who explores Joe's world of driven, ambitious, goal-oriented hyper-achievers in his new book, Flying without a Net: Turn Fear of Change into Fuel for Success.

“At the end of the day what I'm suggesting is that vulnerability in context is the most powerful thing you can have.”

DeLong believes the tendency to be a high-need-for-achievement type is embedded in the DNA, an addiction that spans across socioeconomic groups. Instead of experiencing happiness or well-being, HNAPs seek "relief in the accomplishment of tasks." Moving immediately to the next task on the list, they never savor accomplishments for long, he says. This creates a vicious cycle marked by a feeling of little or no real sense of purpose and a "flatness"—in career and in life. They often go through patches of life without creating or enhancing meaningful relationships, and even lack strength to deal with life's failures.

A former chief development officer and managing director at Morgan Stanley who now teaches organizational behavior and leadership at HBS, DeLong has worked alongside hundreds of HNAPs. He calls himself a card-carrying group member, albeit in recovery. Recovery, to DeLong, entails confronting and getting control of four characteristics or traps that define an HNAP: comparing, busyness, worrying, and blaming. "By reading [the book] they have already begun the intervention," he says. "They begin to entertain having a different type of conversation."

The seed of his book, which DeLong worked on for five years, came while he was completing postdoctoral work at MIT during the late 1970s. "I began to ask myself why I didn't feel more satisfied even though I'd reached these goals and experienced these milestones after graduation. I also began to read more theoretical work on motivation and was influenced by David McClelland's work."

His doubts deepened during the early 1990s, after he moved his family to New York from Provo, Utah for a big job with Morgan Stanley. One day he found himself sitting on a bench, immobilized: he worried whether he could aptly advise the CEO, whether he could get traders and investment bankers to support each other, and whether he could open as many offices as the firm needed.

"When I looked at my watch and realized that it was 10:00 p.m. and that I had been sitting on the bench for two hours, I knew something had to give," he writes. He started contemplating the source of his anxiety, harkening back to McClelland's original work, and eventually thinking more deeply about the "high-need-for-achievement professional" and how helpless these individuals behaved when trying to change dysfunctional behavior.

DeLong, a Portland, Oregon, native who bears a strong resemblance to the actor William H. Macy, knows he is not alone. He estimates about 80 to 85 percent of Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs bankers, for example, would self-identify themselves as HNAPs.

"When I talk about it they all relate to it," he says. "Many will say I thought I was the only one who operated this way or felt this way. Many are relieved to hear the condition has a name."

Harvard is fertile ground for HNAPs, too. DeLong plans to make his book required reading in the second year courses on Authentic Leadership and Power and Influence, asking students to pose challenging questions of themselves. "I wish a lot of the HBS students were more aware of how their behavior impacts others." he says.

The Power Of Vulnerability

Flying without a Net is not a quantitative book, a fact that DeLong initially worried about before writing it. It is packed with vignettes about Tiger Woods's decision to change his golf swing, DeLong's daughter Sara's decision to stay in medical school while she fought lymphoma, and managers who struggled alongside him throughout his career. Despite his concerns about opening up, DeLong says he forced himself to model vulnerability and used his three daughters (one of whom is a second-year student at HBS with HNAP tendencies, he says) as a sounding board as he wrote. "At the end of the day what I'm suggesting is that vulnerability in context can be the most powerful behavior in initiating change."

“I began to ask myself why I didn't feel more satisfied even though I'd reached these goals and experienced these milestones.”

DeLong reveals his own vulnerability through his writing. In a chapter about competition, he admits that his warm feelings about joining the HBS faculty dampened after finding out that his office was sandwiched between Nobel Prize—winner Robert Merton, who helped create the Black-Scholes options pricing model, and Michael Tushman, who had written many books and "was an internationally recognized scholar in the area of organizational innovation." The fact that both men were gracious and supportive didn't make DeLong feel any less inadequate. "There was no way for me to get to my office without a feeling of comparative inadequacy," he writes.

So is there relief for HNAPs from all this obsessive comparing and competing?

Letting go—or flying without a net—is a big part of DeLong's prescription. He calls for the reader to stop and reflect with self-awareness; let go of the past; create a vision or specific goal with an agenda; seek support through mentors and a network; don't blink (or fall back on old behaviors); and take action that makes you vulnerable.

"These six steps create the probability that you will not be controlled by your fears," DeLong writes. "It means that as you begin a new behavior, begin a new relationship, take on a new job, or start on a challenging new assignment, you have the capability to avoid or escape the traps of blame, comparing, busyness, and worry and take the steps towards where you want to be."

Seeking out others is key to recovery, he writes, recommending the SKS form, which he learned about as a graduate student at Brigham Young, a method whereby you ask others what you should "stop (St), keep (K), and start (S) doing," and then asking those same people to hold you accountable for what they included on the list.

More honest, no-holds-barred conversations with bosses and direct reports are also part of recovery, he adds.

Finally, it's important to create sacred time to be with your family and close friends where phones and PDA's are off limits. "When we're secure in the relationships that matter most," DeLong writes, "it's far easier to take chances at work, to embrace new experiences, to tackle challenging assignments, to adjust our management and leadership styles."

Start Of The Journey

The book is no quick fix, but it is a start to a lifelong journey for high need to achieve types who must work through destructive tendencies every day. "My sister is a harpist," DeLong says. "Wherever she takes that harp she has to tune it based on temperature and humidity. If high-achievement types want to be as effective as they can be, they have to tune themselves up every day and be aware."

DeLong says he didn't write the book to create organizations "that feel good or that are nicer," but to rid companies of behavior that saps worker productivity and only creates cynicism.

"The evidence is clear that individuals who are highly engaged make more money for their organizations," he says. "My only hope is that professionals [will no longer] waste so much time having conversations that are superficial and a distraction to making real career and organizational progress."

Book Excerpt from Flying Without a Net: Turn Fear of Change into Fuel for Success

Flying Without a Net: Turn Fear of Change into Fuel for SuccessNow that we're aware of the traps that can keep us from changing, growing, and succeeding, what can we do about them? As it turns out, there's a lot that can be done, but I'd like to demonstrate the prescriptive possibilities by way of Jeff Gardner, a character I created for an earlier book on leadership. Jeff was the highly successful partner of a small consulting firm, and I ended the story in that book with him reflecting on all the tasks that confronted him as he prepared to land in Boston after a long transcontinental flight. Now let's continue the story.

At the end of the flight Jeff felt that all his ruminations about his many pressures and responsibilities had left him more tired than rested. The complaints of younger associates and vice presidents he managed still echoed in his head. He couldn't escape his frustrations about carrying one partner who hated travel, didn't know how to sell business, and—while good at producing work that was assigned to him—hadn't progressed as the firm had grown.

There was also the problem of clients who were becoming more demanding as their financial woes mounted. They seemed to be more aggressive in their demands for not only lower rates but more attention for less money. They also seemed much more willing to challenge everything Jeff suggested to them.

There was also his wife, Marie, and their two girls. Marie had less patience and was more outspoken about the perceived promises that Jeff had broken than she had in the past. She had told him just before he left on his trip, "Jeff, in our fifteen years of marriage I don't know of a time when you've had to choose between work and family that you've chosen family." Jeff found himself feeling more and more guilty when she made these types of observations. She was stating her position more stridently than she had on other occasions; her patience was wearing thin.

What Saved Jeff Gardner

Shortly after returning from his trip, Jeff met with the firm's managing partner, who asked him, "Jeff, do you want to rise higher in the organization and perhaps someday run the firm? Before you tell me what you think I want to hear, I want you to take some time over the next month and ask yourself some tough questions about your career. More important, I want you to ask yourself some questions about yourself. If you want to move up in the firm and take on more responsibility, I think you have a long a way to go. It will take some real change on your part. So think about it. Think seriously about it. The answer isn't obvious. Come back in a month and let's talk again."

After a couple of weekends walking on the beach on Long Island with Marie and having heart-to-heart discussions about matters personal and professional, Jeff decided he needed to deal with his fears and frustrations. Marie noted later that the talks she shared with Jeff on the beach were the first conversations in ten years in which he had opened up about these deeper issues. When they talked these days, they would generally have maintenance conversations, focusing on who would pick up the clothes at the laundry or the kids from school. Everything was about logistics. Now, they were talking in a way Marie remembered from when they were younger, when Jeff was genuine in his expression of feelings and no topic was out of bounds.

Jeff had spent a professional lifetime managing image, never showing any signs of weakness. Jeff thought that any sign of vulnerability might have a negative impact. Along the career journey, Jeff had learned early on that he needed to maneuver carefully around anything that might lead to an "emotional incident" at work, anything that meant he might be embarrassed because he didn't know something or might appear soft—that is, too concerned about his people and not concerned enough about results. You cut that part out of you if you wanted to succeed moving up in the firm. At least that is what Gardner had believed since he was an associate.

When Jeff reported back to the managing partner a month later and told him that he was interested in more responsibility, his mentor pushed back and asked if he was serious. Jeff replied, "I really would like to work on the human dimension of leading and managing but to be perfectly honest, I don't know how and whether I can really get there. I want to and I know that I should know by now how to get there."

"I'm not sure I can do it" was a critical admission. It meant that Jeff had begun to acknowledge that he didn't have all the answers. The self-reflection evident in this statement meant that Jeff had acknowledged to himself his own fallibility and limitations and that an opportunity to learn existed. From an interpersonal standpoint, it conveyed that he had the courage to show vulnerability, that he had gone through some internal process in which he had begun to think through what had gone wrong and why. This one line was what the managing partner had been waiting and hoping for.

What many command-and-control leaders fail to grasp is that admissions of fallibility, uncertainty, and doubt are actually signs of strength. These admissions propel individuals from doing the wrong thing well to doing the right thing poorly. It's what gives them the impetus to learn, to change, and to grow. Before continuing with Jeff's story, I'd like you to pause and engage in the same sort of reflection that Jeff did. The following are questions that high-need-for-achievement professionals don't often ask themselves. They raise the possibility that you may have spent less time than you should have actually slowing down and acknowledging that you may not have all the answers.

I realize that most hard-driving managers and executives have been socialized to believe they cannot admit vulnerability to themselves or others. I would urge you to get past this misconception and realize that such admissions will enhance your productivity and career. So, consider:

  • Do you regret any significant decisions you've made about your career? If you had to do it over again, would you do it differently?
  • Have there been times when you treated your people unfairly? When you failed to listen and learn and instead directed and dictated?
  • Do you feel you've been working at peak capacity in recent years? If not, why not?
  • Are you unwilling to admit your mistakes to your direct reports? To your bosses? To your colleagues?
  • Have you asked anyone for help recently? Have you admitted you didn't know something and needed to learn it? Have you asked for coaching?
  • If you were to be completely honest with your boss and knew that there would be no negative repercussions, what secret fear or anxiety would you admit to him?
  • Do you believe that you're in the right job, in the right group, and in the right organization? Or do you feel there's a mismatch between where you are now and what you want to accomplish?

About the Author

Kim Girard is a writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts.