Executive Education

The high performer’s paradox

By Deb Hordon, Bullhorn
Executive Education
Published: 4 November 2016

I read that Tiger Woods beats himself up as he walks the next 30 yards after a bad shot. At the 31st yard, he forces a radical inner shift to positive thinking so his negative self-talk doesn’t ruin the next shot.

I use this example (despite Woods’ insalubrious personal history) with my executive coaching clients who have been recently promoted into senior leadership positions and find themselves stumbling in their new responsibilities. Highly driven super-achievers can get caught in their negative head junk when they underperform at a new level of leadership (which almost always happens). This, of course, only ignites more underperformance, and pretty soon they can fall into a leadership death spiral.

There’s a paradox in this scenario. To perform at peak, which earned their promotion into the leadership position, high performers use an internal motivation system that pushes them to deliver great results. This internal dialogue takes the form of intense self-criticism. But this same self-criticism also causes them to exhibit litanies of unsuccessful leadership behaviours, so a major internal shift is required to succeed at the next level.

Extreme self-criticism can cause leaders to either undercompensate or overcompensate in their outward behaviours. Examples of the former include:

  • Clamming up, withdrawing, and disengaging in group settings
  • Demonstrating less confidence and credibility
  • Planning one’s next statement while others speak rather than listening closely
  • Avoiding stretch assignments
  • Not taking risks, being creative, or challenging the status quo
  • Misreading political situations due to underestimating one’s own personal power and impact relative to others. An inaccurate perception of organizational politics and one’s position within it inhibits one’s ability to respond appropriately, creating distorted responses.

People undercompensate in these ways because they’re focusing inward to deal with their harsh inner critic and cope with their feelings of panic and inadequacy, worried that they’ll look bad in front of their colleagues.

On the other hand, overcompensators’ inner critics lead them to push even harder, displaying the following imbalanced behaviours:

  • Coming across too strong, too aggressive, or too arrogant
  • Being too controlling in meetings or group processes
  • Blaming others for their own mistakes, throwing people under the bus
  • Belittling other people
  • Being ungenerous with praise, recognition, and appreciation of others’ contributions
  • Giving harsh feedback to others, being overly critical of others

How should you avoid these unsuccessful behaviours? Try deploying the following strategies:

  • Diagnose extreme self-criticism. Pay close attention to your inner dialogue. Do you chastise yourself, berate yourself, or feel like a failure after making mistakes? If so, you’re probably in the overly self-critical zone, and more than likely, this leaks into your leadership behaviours. It can sometimes take someone else – such as a coach or mentor – to help you recognize extreme self-criticism. If you rate yourself much lower than others do in your 360 reviews, that’s also a good indication that you are too self-critical.
  • Address the root cause of your self-criticism. Were you raised by a critical adult? Were you treated poorly by your older siblings or bullied by peers? Did you have a harsh experience with a teacher in your early life? These experiences can shape your inner dialogue. Understanding them and coming to peace with them will make a huge difference. Talking with a trusted friend, partner, coach, or therapist will help achieve that peace.
  • “Right-size” your inner dialogue. Imagine how you might react to your mistakes if you were 50 percent less self-critical than you are. Try using that mindset for a few days and see if you notice any differences. Then consciously and diligently manage your inner dialogue to maintaining high standards without getting into extreme self-criticism. Adopting an attitude of compassionate self-inquiry helps immensely. Don’t criticize yourself for being too self-critical.
  • Accept that you’ll make mistakes. Mistakes are guaranteed in leadership. Perfect leaders and hero leaders don’t exist. Good leaders know they’ll make mistakes and can recover from them. Accepting your imperfections and vulnerabilities makes you an even better leader.

Although this tendency rears its head at the transition into leadership where I often encounter it first, I’ve also seen it in seasoned leaders. It can persist if it isn’t identified and softened early on. It isn’t a show-stopping problem, but it can get in the way of being the most awesome leader you’re capable of being. Most humans have this tendency to some degree, so take it easy on yourself.

Deb Hordon is senior vice president of Leadership Strategy for Bullhorn, which provides cloud-based relationship management software to business-to-business companies. With 14 years of experience coaching and assessing leaders, she also has a private executive coaching practice.