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.
    • Anonymous
    Thank you. This came at a time in my life when I was struggling to solve my anxiety created by my personal and professional life.
    • Gerard Bremault
    • CEO, The Centre for Child Development of the Lower Mainland
    Thank you Thomas and Kim for this reminder and reinforcement of these important ideas. While I cringe at some of the characteristics ascribed to the opening description of Joe (and cross my fingers that my belief that I don't exhibit some of them is true), there is much in this article that resonates with me as a life-long recovering perfectionist. First of these is the point that "HNAPs seek 'relief in the accomplishment of tasks.' Moving immediately to the next task on the list, they never savor accomplishments for long!" Yep, a genuine struggle. It has also taken and continues to take quite some effort to be true to the insights embedded in your phrase that, "What many command-and-control leaders fail to grasp is that admissions of fallibility, uncertainty, and doubt are actually signs of strength." While it remains strongly counterintuitive, despite repeatedly proving itself to be true, I persistently
    find I am most effective and at my greatest strength when I acknowledge and share my very human weaknesses and vulnerabilities. It is then that I can best connect with my teams, colleagues and family and contribute the best of myself. Still, allowing that feeling of vulnerability is easier said than done and requires a genuine force of will; at least for me! Many thanks for addressing the "tough stuff" of effective performance and leadership. And thanks for giving me the opportunity to test my willingness to make myself vulnerable, human and more effective by commenting.
    • LT Foster
    • Asst Director of Grants
    I am so appreciative of this article. I am at a point where I am trying to achieve many things, personally and professionally and I know that fear of change is the biggest thing holding me back. I look forward to reading the book.
    • Anonymous
    Excellent article. I recently completed a major event, which was executed well and considered a success by participants. Yet, I have been struggling with feelings of sadness and defeat. These emotions really baffled me, but now I have a better of the cause: HNAP and "not savoring the success."

    So I have decided to relax and savor this success. Thank you.
    • Paul Nicholas
    • Director, Soul-Chaplain Consultancy
    This is excellent - so thought-provoking and resonant with experience and observation. When the HNAP's needs and motivations overtake and outdistance the needs and motivations of their company, their colleagues, friends family and all the moral purposes these carry with them - then they are on a fast-track road to loss of integrity, selfhood, and ultimately....emptiness.
    • H D'Silva
    • HR Consultant, Recruitment Coach
    When I read this article, I felt it was written specifically about me - what a harsh look in the mirror. I agree that HNAP has held me back for quite some time now, and up until five years ago, I did not have the fears and anxieties I have today and I achieved much more. I am desperately trying to make some big positive changes in my life professionally, personally and from a financial perspective and despite my efforts, nothing seems to be working. I can gain all the knowledge in the world, but I now realise there are personal barriers in my behavior and thinking which are halting progress. So I will definitely look forward to reading and learning from this book and trust that there is a major transformation ahead which I am looking forward to!
    • Paul Stewart
    • Global Deal-Maker
    I was privileged to have Tom DeLong as a professor when I was an MBA student at HBS -- without question, Tom had (and continues to have from all that I have learned from him) more of a profound influence on my personal life and professional career than I was able to imagine at the time. Tom's ongoing work with current students -- as well as with lifelong learners like me who will benefit from this book -- is a treasure that has made our world a better place to live. I'll be reading his book soon, and will probably be giving it as a gift to many HNAPs who I know!

    Also, as a deal-maker, I've coached those deal-makers who I mentor that they should consciously understand the implications of "[m]oving immediately to the next task on the list [and] never savor[ing] accomplishments for long" -- and anticipating the "down" feeling that comes immediately after the conclusion of a big deal -- when the pressure is to move on to the next big deal that is biting at your heels.

    Thanks, Tom -- we are indebted to you for sharing your wisdom and your experiences.
    • Clinton Coker
    • Director of Global Excellence, SunGard Global Services
    Yes. I am a card carrying member of HNAP, too. Your message really hits home. Some questions that come to mind include -

    * In the first example, the issue seemed to be a "need for recognition" versus a need to achieve. Is there an issue of humility here?

    * As a consultant, we are expected to be experts for our customers. We need to be able to deliver and speak to mass communities through marketing, white papers, forums, etc. At the same, we have a business to run with employees who need to be developed for the reasons offered above. Our families deserve all the respect in the world for putting up with it. How in the world do we make all this happen?

    Excuse me now - I need to run out a grab your book because I fill the need to achieve becoming less of an achiever.
    • Anonymous
    There are there concepts here that confuse the purpose of this book.

    1. If Joe REALLY has a need to achieve why is does he not pay attention and why doesn't he blame his failures on other people, but a lack of his preparation?

    2. HNAP characteristics, "comparing, busyness, worrying, and blaming" has very little to do with those who really have a need to achieve and push themselves to accomplish their purpose/goal, but a character flaw of someone is wants the corner office at any cost.

    3. 'The power of vulnerability" is a concept often addressed in business and related to sports figures with absolute no context. As a former soldier and elite basketball player, I believe that you are referencing the trust and dependencies that develop between team mates and soldiers. This isn't completed by getting "naked" in the shower, but a true demonstration that the person next to you has the skills and the integrity to have your back. Which is totally absent in corporate America today, co-workers are rewarded for being fake, incentives are given for creating the best shams, friends are hired and promote without relevancy to qualification, and HR has equated rowing in the direction of everyone else to no emotional intelligence.

    One thing I do agree with is that seeking out others who have a similar need to DELIVER quality products and services, develop win-win strategies with their business partners and co-workers is going to create a A Paradigm shift. Leadership and the real need for achievement is about making choices with integrity and working to achieve those results.
    • Rose
    • CFO, confidential
    HNAPs ...I think this attitude is actually encouraged by our enviroment, confusing perseverance, hard work, healthy ambition with an obsession, there is a thin line between those 2 , but also is a consequence of our lifestyle, in a globalized world, with people being more competitive everyday, with 20 yr old kids being millionaires or billionaires there is a huge pressure to become a HNAP , not just because your career, also because is an status question ... in the past being a manager was something, now everybody wants the C suite even if they are not made for it.
    I believe in stop and take a breath, enjoy for a bit but honestly and saddly not much, because even if you want to enjoy for a longer time, you can t live on your past glory.
    • Anonymous
    When I started reading the article, it struck me that it could also easily have been about office sociopaths. Is the author missing an obvious connection?
    • Frank Riganelli, Author
    • (Former) Fortune operations management and College Instructor
    This is good information as people should be reminded to look at themselves and ask challenging questions of themselves. It's an area which I had often talked about in providing training to professionals and even nonprofessionals. The lack of self awareness is at the heart of many problems between people.

    I will point out that Need For Achievement people; or sometimes called Need Achievers; or even Hight Need Achievers, are not the high-need-for-achievement professional as referred to in this article.

    "Need for Achievement (N-Ach) refers to an individual's desire for significant accomplishment, mastering of skills, control, or high standards. The term was first used by Henry Murray and associated with a range of actions. These include: "intense, prolonged and repeated efforts to accomplish something difficult. To work with singleness of purpose towards a high and distant goal. To have the determination to win". The concept of NAch was subsequently popularized by the psychologist David McClelland." [taken from Widipedia]

    Need Achievers represent their own challenges in organizations, similar to HNAPs, however not in terms of change of oneself. The consideration for an organization or boss with N-Achs is to provide the high-executing people with challenging work, in general terms.
    • Michele
    • NASA
    Thank you for sharing. I've ordered the book for myself and to share with colleagues.
    • Anonymous
    An excellent input on peoples behavior. I feel HNAPs and N-Achs are people who missed out on achieving something great earlier in life or are people who have consistently been achieving good - excellent results in all the tasks assigned to them. These are the people who want somebody specific to appreciate their hard work / achievements and may be that specific somebody may not be aware of their hard work / achievements. NHAPs get into a vicious cycle of always achieving greater targets and not savouring the success because that somebody specific has not acknowledged it or is not aware of it; so they move on to the next bigger task assuming that some day that somebody specific will acknowledge and appreciate it. I think I will go through this book and re-analyse this concept.
    • Jay Somasundaram
    • Systems Analyst
    It's worth extrapolating Rose's idea, that this is a social disease, with two implications:

    1. It is also a disease of societies and cultures; and,

    2. that it is infectious, and possibly mutually exacerbating between individuals.

    There is, I believe, some interesting literature on how many business leaders typically display the clinical symptoms of psychopathy. One interpretation of this is that these characteristics are needed for success.

    Consider what would happen if Obama (or some other leader) acknowledged making mistakes. Even if the public were to accept that he was fallible, imagine how this one sound-bite would be magnified by his opponents. Failure is not an option. Or, at least, not admitting it is.

    William Perry's model of intellectual and critical maturity puts it into clear perspective. The majority of people, including college graduates, are able to tolerate ambiguity. Confession may cleanse your soul, but its going to leave the majority of your followers (and perhaps even some superiors) angry and enemies elated.
    • Gregory J Prang
    • Principal, Veregent Group
    If you are obsessed with fear and doubt and maintaining self-image, try focusing all your energy on developing your team, creating opportunities for them, and enabling their success. This is incompatible with self-doubt, I think. Also gets you to the corner office better than obsessive self-promotion.

    BTW, a side note:
    ..... a feeling of little or no real sense of purpose and a "flatness"--in career and in life .....
    sounds like a clinical description of depression. It might be worthwhile to check out whether this underlying condition is present before, or in addition to, trying the methods outlined here.
    • Thomas DeLong
    • Author of book, Harvard Business School
    Let me thank you all who have submitted responses to the article on dealing with the excitement and addiction to achieve. Many of the responses raise more questions that push us all to question our assumptions about how we live and work and lead others . I do believe that some reflection helps us along the path so that we are more likely to have honest conversations with ourselves and others. My own limited perspective provides a backdrop for me to ask myself tough questions that may open up new possibilities. For example, i need to be honest with myself when I run into personal limitations about how I might deal with them. I do know that asking questions now before I'm in the experience will be helpful along the way. Tom DeLong
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    As far as achievement in life is concerned, only sky is the limit. Yes, a few do achieve optimally professionally but they too find a gap as the over-extended attention to professional side often fails to give them real happiness and internal peace. Anyway, let's look to professional aspects only which Professor Delong is focusing on.
    HNAP's have to be properly mentored and nurtured to meet all their aspirations and needs.They must sincerely go in depth to answer the vital queries listed in the research paper. And then, instead of concentrating on their past failures they should strive to perfect themselves in future.
    Even at my advanced age composed of almost half a century of professional career, I found these questions very focused and these hit the entire personality. Wish I had come across such thoughts much earler. At this stage, I shall test others so that they can benefit and improve.
    • Juan Aguirre
    • Chair for Entrepreneurship, Universidad Latina Costa Rica
    I am very happy to hear that somebody address the issue. My own process was to let go of the past, set clear goals and above all quit comparing myself with others along with a good dosis of humility and patience and that for "latinos" seem to be a very hard medicine in a culture were achivement is at time more related to who you are than what you know that is even more frustrating, Ten points for De Long. It was about time anxieties and insecurities were discusses more open among academics evrywhere. Felicitaciones Prof De Long !!!!
    • Kevin J. Legrow
    • IT Consulting Architect, Solutions Unlimited
    This is a great article. It comes at a time when I have arrived at a professional and personal crossroads simultaneously. It was extremely helpful and I thank the author sincerely.
    • AG
    • Stanford Business School
    What happens when things go too far, though, and a HNAP becomes incapacitated by doubt and so vulnerable that he/she completely loses their confidence?
    • Christine Teopiz
    • Student
    I love this article. I, myself is an achiever. I tried to accomplish a lot of things even to be the first among my class but at the end of the day, I still feel something is missing.
    • Sweta Mohapatra
    • HR Business Partner, Barclays
    'Joes' at workplace are very common, sometimes we too become Joes. And some organization cultures and performance management system want only Joes. If you not a Joe then you are out. So if you are not inherently a HNAP but forced to be one, imagine the heights of meaninglessness one would go through. Which is why I believe leaders and HR function can do a whole lot in controlling and moderating the HNAP instincts, especially the dysfunctional ones.