If you want something done, give it to a busy person.

I remember this quote from my childhood, and it is meant to show that people who work the hardest are likely to be the ones who are best able to complete additional hard tasks.

Since then, there has been an explosion of the productivity culture, where people often work incredibly long hours to show how busy they are and to achieve as much as possible.

After all, when comparing yourself to other colleagues, doesn’t it make sense to show you are the individual who gets the most work done, and therefore most worthy of a promotion?

This is why so many people suffer from issues like perfectionism, and wanting to continue to achieve more and more.

Unfortunately, being an overachiever in a work setting has been shown to have some seriously negative consequences

Over-achievement learned at school

One issue is that many people learn the importance of overachieving in a school setting where performance really can be quantified and compared between people. Working hard and studying diligently in school and university often leads to the student being rewarded for this behaviour with good grades. This can be used to compare the effort you put in against the quantitative output which someone else gives (grades and reports). There is often a direct correlation, so many students learn that higher effort leads to higher achievement, hence a drive to overachieve if you put in more effort than others.

However, in the real world, there is not always a direct correlation between how much hard work you put in and how others see it. In many cases, workplaces do not have a senior authority figure like a teacher who can tell you how well you are doing compared to everyone else. And this can lead to people who were overachievers in school and university getting a “hangover” from not understanding the relationship between effort and output once they enter the workplace.

In 1995, Karen Arnold published a longitudinal study looking at what happened to 81 high school valedictorians (often the highest achievers in their class) over the next 14 years once they entered the workforce. She found that while these people expected their happiness to continue to rise over time, it usually stalled once they began working. Arnold hypothesized that this may be because schools reward rule-followers, whereas workplaces values flexible thinking and problem-solving. The overachieving students were poised to be future leaders, yet at a young age got so caught up in others’ expectations and rules that they never learned how to trust their own desires and decisions.

Hard work vs Strategic Work

These workers may end up being afraid of failure.

They may also not understand the subtle differences between hard work and strategic work.

  • Hard Work is trying to brute force your way to success. You solve problems by taking the accepted process or formula which is known to work, and pushing through as many things as you can. Put in more repetition and effort, get more of the same outputs, like a status quo factory
  • Strategic Work asks the question of what a possible good outcome is, and then thinking of ways to achieve it. Yes, sometimes this will involve putting in repetition, but sometimes you may think of a new approach to solve the problem, or a completely new problem to solve

So working hard may result in more stress when it seems that other people who are working more strategically can achieve the same or better results with less effort.

One research study also shows that doing good work leads to getting more work, making this loop ever more exhausting. People who are conscientious about doing their best are also more likely to put in so much effort at work that they suffer from more emotional exhaustion and work-family conflict than people who do not put in as much effort at work.

Envy and hatred from colleagues at work

But then there are the overachievers at work, who outshine their colleagues. The “Superstars”. This can bring other negative issues.

I have previously written about Tall Poppy Syndrome, where people who stand out are often cut down by others. Much like the Japanese proverb says:

The nail that stands out will be hammered down

This is often based on the culture in the workplace team, and how resources are available to everyone, high and low performers alike.

Research of 350 hairstylists in Taiwan has also shown that high performers at work are often the ones who attract more than average negative sentiment from colleagues, rather than praise. This is most often the case in situations where team members need to compete with one another for resources, and average performers feel like a higher performer will take resources from them. In situations where there are enough resources for everyone, then colleagues often acknowledge and appreciate having a “star” performer amongst them as it raises everyone’s level.


So perhaps the best way to raise the ability of everyone in a team to perform at their best is to:

  • Ensure everyone has the resources they need
  • Promote a culture of collaboration instead of competition
  • Build a culture of Psychological Safety
  • Allow people to make mistakes and try more strategic ways to solve problems

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.