Insecure Overachievers. When insecurity forms tireless workers

30 August 2018

Attitude to problem solving, creativity, intellectual curiosity, energy and passion. These are the main characteristics that candidates must possess to be attractive on today’s labor market. The portrait of the ideal employee is made up, however, of another character trait, as much sought-after as being unspoken by the most experienced recruiter worldwide: insecurity. The latter, combined with excellent skills and a consolidated experience, creates the insecure overachiever, a term that identifies those who live with a continuous sense of inferiority the confrontation with colleagues and self-impose very high working standards in order to justify their presence, and position, in the company.

It is the portrait of this new generation of brilliant workers, exceptionally capable and ambitious, but driven by a deep sense of their own inadequacy, to emerge from the study of Laura Empson, Professor of Management of Professional Services Companies at the Cass Business School of London. The over 500 interviews conducted for her book Leading Professionals (with the significant subtitle Power, Politics and Prima Donnas), have highlighted a precise mental scheme: the intangibility of intellectual work increases the insecurity of professionals and transforms colleagues into competitors.

This phenomenon has been exploited especially by companies and elitist organizations in the world of finance, advocacy, advisory and tech, which select the best candidates to then enter them into work groups where their performance will be measured precisely by comparison of the results achieved. This type of human resource management, combined with the up or out method of promotion, transforms for many the workplace in an arena where they fight daily to prove their worth.

With the advent of the economic crisis and the relative instability of jobs, the stakhanovism fomented by insecurity reached all workers, of all levels and in the most varied types of companies. If once the unwritten agreement between employee and company involved years of hard work in order to enjoy later on the privileges of career advancement, today it is increasingly common to find at 9 pm people still at work in the offices, starting with managers and going down the ladder to the interns. The tendency to work beyond the canonical hours and to blur the dividing line between work and private life, is reinforced by the strong social control inherent to the corporate culture. This means that even those who do not suffer from performance insecurity, feel the pressure of the judgment of colleagues and superiors, adapting in turn to the rhythms imposed by the group.

Insecure overachievers are therefore incredibly attractive for companies, being self-motivated and self-disciplined, while their example often pushes other collaborators to a greater commitment. Their exceptional performance is also accompanied by a firm conviction that they are choosing by themselves this pace of work and therefore the company policy is never questioned nor is perceived a sense of exploitation. The result is that, when insecure overachieveres become themselves leaders in their organizations, they automatically replicate the high performance work and social control system that created them.

If insecurity acts as fuel for this category of employees, it becomes quite a problem when the latter meets the responsibilities of a managerial role. Managers who are scarcely convinced of their own professional and leadership skills tend to avoid confrontation and feedback, do not explain their decisions and never ask for help or advice to their employees. In addition, insecure leaders tend to micromanage, or in other words to closely monitor the work of their collaborators, entering into minimum details of the projects and asking for continuous changes. In this way, the decisions concerning the project are affected by the need to obtain the constant approval of the manager, rather than made on the basis of the convenience for the success of the project itself. In addition to slowing down the work of the team, micromanagement therefore creates disengagement among workers, to the point of increasing the company’s turnover. According to a study, as much as 44% of the interviewed employees decided to quit their job due to the intrusive control of their boss.

In order to get committed and involved employees, it is necessary to give them responsibility, independence and ultimately also the merit of their work. Toni Belloni, Managing Director of LVMH, intervened during BBS Graduation 2018 recalling that a good leader must be concerned to develop the full potential of his collaborators, not about being the best himself. “The important thing in life as in the company is to know how to listen and build strong human relationships. Not much is achieved by isolation, it is necessary to combine collective intelligence and the diversity of talents. I have always been a relatively insecure person, but I have turned this feature into a strong point: I prepare myself more carefully, I appreciate the opinion of others more and I do not take myself too seriously.”

Leveraging employees’ personal insecurity can undoubtedly lead to increased productivity in the short term, but undermines some important pillars of a company’s organization. The enhancement of human capital is a fundamental factor in the management of organizations, which often determine their stability and success. Bologna Business School offers, to those who are interested in reaching managerial roles in human resources, the Full-time Master in HR & Organization. The program has an international focus, which translates into collaborations with teachers, successful companies and managers from the most advanced companies in this sector. The classroom experience is also enriched by the development of a professional project aimed at improving the attitude to teamwork. The master has obtained the EPAS accreditation and is also sponsored by the European Association for People Management (EAPM) and the Italian Association for Personnel Management (AIDP).


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