01 Sep 2011
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Breaking Free from Fear of Change

Driven individuals often stymie their own career development
by Deborah Blagg

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I understand the executives I talk about in this book very well because I share their predicament,” notes Tom DeLong, the Philip J. Stomberg Professor of Management Practice at HBS and the author of Flying without a Net: Turn Fear of Change into Fuel for Success (Harvard Business Review Press). In his research on high-need-for-achievement professionals — people with an insatiable need to keep achieving at all costs — DeLong took stock of the ways in which he and other driven executives can become victims of their own ambitions and resistance to change.

An expert on the challenges facing individuals and organizations in the process of change, DeLong is a former chief development officer and managing director at Morgan Stanley. His new book draws on conversations with top executives in business, law, and other professional organizations across the globe and offers practical advice on reducing the anxieties that can arise and block career growth when change is the order of the day.

What’s the meaning of “flying without a net” in your book’s title?

High-need-for-achievement professionals — and I would say that many MBAs would place themselves in this category — are driven by a continual need to perform perfectly. They focus myopically on success. That drive can lead to tremendous professional achievements. But as careers progress, continued success requires the ability to change and adapt to new conditions, to take the risk of trying something that requires a learning curve. People who pride themselves on perfect performance can become emotionally paralyzed at that point, and that can stall their careers. So the flying-without-a- net metaphor is aimed at liberating those people, opening them up to a new sense of possibility.

What causes the paralysis?

Much of it is anxiety. If your self-image is based on perfection, it’s hard to trust yourself enough to swing for the fences on something new. One of the surprises from this research was the extent to which the high need to achieve is as strong a force as an addiction. It feeds on itself. You might pursue and achieve a particular business goal, but as soon as you do, you begin looking for the next opportunity that will enable you to prove that you can achieve. The more you achieve, the more you have a need to achieve. It is insatiable. When that is in your nature, trying something that requires you to go beyond what you already know you can do well is difficult.

What are some of the clues that would indicate your need for achievement is blocking your path to career growth?

If the main emotion you experience when you accomplish a task is relief, not happiness or some sense of satisfaction, that’s one clue. If you use busyness as an excuse to avoid self-reflection, that’s another. I often hear MBAs say they feel guilty because they have accomplished so much and still feel empty. Their assumption is that happiness will come if they work even harder, put in longer hours, but that’s rarely the case.

One of the main points of the book is that by reframing your perspective, by stopping and reflecting on what it is that keeps you on a path of constant motion, you can see where you might be spinning your wheels, where you are not working smarter, and where you are sacrificing important relationships.

When you say “relationships,” do you mean work relationships?

Any relationship. High-need-for-achievement individuals often are so focused on their own agendas that they are unaware of how others experience them. That’s a serious flaw. At work, they might unconsciously short-circuit connections with colleagues or ignore important information because they are so preoccupied with their own objectives. And they are among the worst at leaving work behind at the end of the day. The most significant people in their lives are likely to see them as really up or really down, depending on how things went at the office. There’s not much middle ground.

What are some of the most common adverse effects that such individuals can have on an organization?

When high-need-for-achievement individuals — who often are in leadership positions — exhibit dysfunctional behaviors, it can have a very real impact on the bottom line. This research is aimed at helping individuals and organizations become more successful by changing those behaviors.

Can you give some examples of dysfunctional behaviors?

Some typical behavioral traps include busyness, which we’ve already touched on; the tendency to blame others if something goes wrong; measuring success against unrealistic or ever-increasing standards; and worrying constantly about potential negative outcomes. If you’ve ever had a supervisor or employee who behaved like that, you already know the negative impact on morale, innovation, teamwork, and other areas across the organization. If you have fallen into any of these traps yourself, you may be sabotaging your own career.

If there are high-need-for-achievement types in your organization, are there ways to help them get out of these traps?

A key factor to keep in mind is that ambiguity is the enemy. It creates anxiety, a sense of disconnection, and the feeling that things are not going well.

One way around this is to have frequent check-ins. Don’t wait for the year-end evaluation. The best leaders for high-need-for-achievement professionals communicate expectations clearly and early, touch base often on the progress of a particular task, and show continued interest in that person’s work and career development. This approach goes a long way toward defusing the anxiety that can lead to some of the unproductive behaviors.

If you fit this description yourself, and you’re confronting a challenge that puts you outside your comfort zone, you may have to be the one who initiates those frequent check-ins. Schedule a conversation once a month to ask questions, let your boss know where you are, and get feedback. Cultivate a support system among your colleagues and talk over work issues with them first, so by the time you speak with your supervisor, you have a clear idea of what you will say.

But to do that, wouldn’t you have to admit to others that you don’t have all the answers?

That’s exactly right. It takes a lot of courage to be vulnerable, especially in the competitive atmosphere that exists in corporations today. But in my view, vulnerability is the ultimate professional strength, because it is the process of being open to learning. It’s admitting that you don’t have all the answers.

Just as the best organizations make space for innovative projects or practices that might not succeed at first, high-need-for-achievement professionals need to make space in their careers to engage in and learn from challenges that offer no guarantees of immediate success. When you have the tools to manage that process within yourself, you can push past the barriers that are keeping you from moving on to the next level.

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