Common Career Traps of High Performers

In every organization we can spot the individuals with stellar performance who seem to be rocketing to the top, untouched by the usual obstacles and bureaucratic red tape. But, take it from me, things aren’t always as they seem from the outside.  

I’ve spent twenty years working with these high achievers and success-oriented individuals, and they definitely face their own set of challenges. The truth is, I’ve experienced some of these struggles myself. If you are a top performer (or a leader who manages one), it’s important to know the common career traps that may be draining confidence and diminishing the sense of achievement.

Here are four of the most common ones, along with suggestions to avoid them:  

The Perfection Trap

Top performers live to achieve perfection. It’s what drives them—and it’s likely part of their DNA. Our schools and our society only add fuel to that fire, setting ambitious and often unrealistic expectations. Did you get 100 on the exam? Did you finish the project on time and under budget? Do your abs compare to the people on the cover of the fitness magazines?

Seeking perfection may become an addiction, and that can work against us. When people are paralyzed by the desire to be perfect, they lose their flexibility and openness to innovation. (“If I take risks, I might be wrong!”) That’s a huge problem when economic conditions are constantly changing, customer preferences are shifting, and those who are “first to market” often win the race. Sometimes we don’t have the luxury of perfection; we just need to get it done. 

How to avoid this trap:

  • Separate your self-worth from perfectionism: “you” are not the outcome of the project.
  • Imagine the worst that could happen if something isn’t perfect and recognize that those fears are probably unfounded.
  • Take micro-risks by finding small areas where “good enough” really is good enough.
  • Try to become more discerning about situations where quality control is essential (and where it’s not) so you can expand your ability to “go for it”.

The Comparison Trap

Right or wrong, top performers are constantly compared to the people around them. That’s often how their success is measured: in relation to everyone else. So it’s not surprising that they become “comparison junkies” and mentally kick themselves when they come up short. (“She’s smarter. Funnier. More articulate.”)

These high flyers might look effortlessly confident on the outside, but they could be hiding an inner storm of envy, anxiety and self-doubt that begins to erode their performance. Constant comparisons are confidence-killers.

How to avoid this trap:

  • Focus on your own unique strengths and talents.
  • Adopt an abundance mentality.
  • Be genuinely supportive of others’ success.
  • Find opportunities for a “strategic partnership” that creates collaboration instead of comparison.

The Imposter Syndrome Trap

In my years of working with hundreds of executives and leaders, I have come to believe that most successful professionals experience some level of Impostor Syndrome. Myself included.

Despite overwhelming proof that they are talented and insightful, many top performers desperately feel like a fraud. What if their years of achievements were just due to pure luck? What if they really don’t have the qualifications needed to do this job? They go through the motions of success while secretly waiting for the people around them to discover their inadequacies and incompetence. Not a good formula for being productive and generating results.

How to avoid this trap:

  • Recognize that negative self-talk won’t help your career.
  • Make a list of your talents, skills, and accomplishments to visually reinforce your validity.
  • Shift your thinking to become more about them than about you.
  • Refuse to let self-doubt creep into your mind and reduce your effectiveness.

The Ambition Trap

There’s a fine line between competitive spirit and blind ambition. Some top performers step right over that line, becoming completely enamored with the adrenaline rush of winning. Achieving goals becomes secondary to the winning itself, which strips away the meaning and purpose behind their efforts. Instead of taking time to celebrate their accomplishments or rest and recharge, they are on to the next challenge.

Over time, this type of relentless win-seeking behavior leaves people feeling dissatisfied and empty.

How to avoid this trap:

  • Redefine the concept of winning to incorporate broader goals.
  • Position each “win” as a building block to reach your goals rather than simply another notch in your corporate belt.
  • Work to balance your professional accomplishments with personal achievements.
  • Find ways to give back and pay it forward through your success, adding meaning to each win and milestone.

If you’ve experienced any of these traps during your career, I’d love to hear about the strategies you used to overcome them.


Originally published on Psychology Today

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