Workplace Doctor: harness the energy of the high achiever

My team all measure success differently. While some measure it by how happy they are in their lives as a whole, others measure it by how fast they are rising up the ladder and how much they earn. How do I manage those whose sole driver in life is work-related achievement? They are almost hungry to get ahead, and trying to contain that energy is hard, particularly when I feel they are not ready for the next step. LK, Abu Dhabi

A thirst for success can be an extremely positive characteristic for the members of your team driven by high achievement if managed effectively. However, it can also create counterproductive behaviours with people not taking on feedback and trying to get one over one another. The hunger to get ahead can make some like a dog with a bone, continually pulling at the lead to move forward, even if you may feel they need a little bit longer learning the tricks of the trade. Unfortunately, this tenacity can also come at the expense of getting along with colleagues as well.

Understanding expectations and motivation are an extremely important skill for any manager, as team members will have different expectations and drivers of success. Those who look to other aspects of their life tend to have a wider pool of achievements to measure success by; whereas those who are solely focused on work can sometimes put all their eggs in one basket. It is not uncommon for these people to feel frustrated when their true career progression does not match what success they personally feel they deserve.

As a manager, your role is to appropriately manage the expectations of these high achievers to help them understand what they need to do to be ready for the next step, as well as showing appreciation for the drive they already possess. This energy is extremely valuable. Your role is almost to filter this motivation appropriately and help them focus on areas that will make them more effective, raising their awareness of certain development opportunities and helping them become more mindful of the effect they have on those around them.

Here are some insights from my own experience of coaching what I sometimes describe as “high achievers” and some ways that as a manager you can support them.

Some high achievers can be perfectionists and their desire to complete a task to perfection can actually limit productivity.

Other high achievers may be intensely competitive; some competitive spirit can drive a team to greater heights, but too much competition can cause stress and harm group morale. Some high achievers worry that others will feel intimidated by their success, or will have unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve. Manage this through collaborative working as well as regular one-to-one feedback and keep encouraging them to reflect on their own style, effectiveness and impact.

Your own self-confidence is also key as achievers can seem intimidating if you feel insecure about your own skills. Do everything you can to bring these people on board, but make sure they are also clear of your role and authority and that in yours and the organisation’s eyes, drive is only one aspect of performance and the organisation values many other things (e.g. developing others).

Another way to harness their drive is to keep their work interesting.

Research has found that high achievers place a greater importance on interesting and challenging work.

High achievers typically want to expand their skill sets horizontally as well as vertically. Therefore, if you feel they may not be ready for the next step, then cross-train them to work in other positions or to gain exposure in other areas. This will keep them hungry but also help them grow and mature before taking the next step.

Doctor’s prescription:

Those who are hungry to get ahead can sometimes feel like a boiling kettle ready to overflow. However, as a manager it is important you harness this energy appropriately as well as helping these people understand that personal drive and contribution is only one aspect of successful leadership. Help them look to themselves and to their impact on others and keep them engaged through showing them that challenges can be provided in different ways, not just upwards.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues


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