How to avoid executive stress

How to avoid executive stress
Market Leader March 2012

Organisational behaviour expert, Thomas DeLong highlights a familiar problem with successful executives: the drive to achieve can be an addiction with the same impact as substance abuse. Here are ways to recognise it and try to control it

Mark, a well-known CEO, told me of the time he visited his brother in a drug treatment centre. This was the third time Mark’s brother, a highly successful physician, had attempted to break his addiction to prescription drugs.

Mark said that he will always remember the experience of being confronted by his brother during a family group therapy session. As Mark sat in the circle his brother said to him: ‘There really isn’t much difference between us. We are both addicts but of a different kind. My addiction ruined my first family and my career and I’m still trying to salvage it after 30 years of struggle. And your addiction to achieve and succeed has made you famous. But just realise that the difference between us is minimal.’

When teaching various groups of executives, I relate the story of Mark and his brother. Each group responds similarly. They relate to these two professionally successful men and see that they live largely on the edge of their own insatiable need to keep achieving at all costs. They realise that they often shoot themselves in the foot because of their need to cross achievement markers off their lists – activities, assignments and projects. And they also realise that their lists of things to do keep getting longer and longer the more they achieve. They simply add to their list as they cross items off the top.

In practice

One newly minted doctor who was in the process of setting up her practice said: ‘I should have realized sooner that the more I cross off accomplishments and activities on the top of the page the more I add things to the bottom. My worry is whether or not this is going to be the pattern for my life. If I keep this up all I will be at the end of my life is tired.’

Fred, a professor friend, once took me into his office and pointed out a pile of notepads that had accumulated over his 30-year career. He had kept all his ‘to-do’ lists, and each list was filled with crossed-out items signifying that they had been accomplished. Fred said: ‘Maybe at my funeral I should have these notepads stacked next to my casket as a way of showing what my life was all about.’

This need to achieve is one of the central psychosocial needs that have been studied for years in psychology. These psychosocial needs or social motives are very different from physiological needs as defined by Abraham Maslow. Maslow suggests that our physiological needs can be extinguished temporarily through obvious and simple interventions. If we are thirsty we can drink water and the need is extinguished for the time being. The same holds true for sleep, eating, sex, etc.

Psychological theorist David McClelland, however, describes our psychosocial needs as producing the exact opposite effect. In other words, as we strive to meet our needs to achieve, the need becomes greater and greater. It fact, it becomes insatiable. So that the more we achieve, the more we want to achieve. It also makes it difficult to do anything else other than think about or do work.

Some professionals live with the false assumption that once they achieve a certain amount of status, or financial security or titles, or homes they will be satisfied to throttle back the drive to achieve. But the research says otherwise.

This need to accomplish will persist forever. One of my clients, Frank, told me that he had the goal of achieving a certain net worth (a very big number) before he was 60. Once he achieved it at age 57, however, he simply recalibrated his number upwards and continued driving for the adjusted number.

One leading Wall Street analyst, Mary Meeker, reported a similar experience when she built her second home in a resort town. Once it was completed she became frustrated with her older ‘full-time’ home and began redecorating it from top to bottom. The last time we spoke she was considering buying another home so she would have places both in a warm weather and cold weather port.

I don’t write this to insult you – as you no doubt realise, I’m a driven professional myself – but to state a truth that has escaped a lot high-need-for-achievement people I know. In fact, the positive aspects of this personality type make your success possible. If you didn’t have an insatiable desire for achievement and weren’t so task-focused, you would not have done as well as you have.

But ambition can be blinding, and when you’re so obsessed with completing tasks effectively and maintaining your stature within the organisation, you may miss some critical aspects that define you – and that can keep you from achieving the success you seek.

Just because these traits are common, however, doesn’t mean that they have to derail your career. In fact, just becoming aware of them will go a long way toward preventing them from doing damage. Once you become more conscious of these 11 traits, you’ll be able to change your behaviours in a more productive manner. To that end, I’ve compiled a group of questions that you should ask yourself to assess which ones are impeding your career progress and job satisfaction:

Driven to Achieve the Task

  • Do you find yourself dissatisfied with your performance if you only do a satisfactory job; even when you do a good job, do you often beat yourself up because you believe you could have done better?
  • Do you regularly cast an envious eye on the careers of your friends; do you believe that they’re doing better than you, no matter how well you’re doing?
  • Are you constantly looking for roles and responsibilities that challenge you; do you feel you need to prove yourself by tackling assignments with high degrees of difficulty?

"When you’re so obsessed with completing tasks effectively and maintaining your stature within the organisation, you may miss some critical aspects – and that can keep you from achieving"

Failing to Differentiate Urgent from merely Important

  • Do you find it difficult to prioritise your to-do list; does it seem impossible to designate one item on it less important that others?
  • Is it likely that you find yourself trying to do everything at once; that you spread yourself thinly attempting to get multiple tasks done simultaneously because you can’t figure out which task demands your full attention?

Difficulty with Delegating

  • How often do you take over a task that you initially assigned to a direct report; do you do so because you don’t believe the direct report can handle the task or because you become anxious that he or she can’t do it as well as you can?
  • When you do manage to delegate an assignment, do you constantly check on that person and micromanage their work?
  • Are you reluctant to delegate because you don’t like wasting the time necessary to teach someone else to do something?

"Are you constantly looking for people to tell you how you did; do you practically beg people to tell you that you did a good job?"

Struggling with Producer-to- Supervisor Transition

  • Do you find your managerial role uncomfortable and confusing, especially contrasted with your individual contributor role?
  • When you try to manage others, do you struggle to know how well you’re doing; does the lack of clear measures bother you?

Obsessed about Getting the Job done at all Costs

  • Do you lay awake nights wondering about how you’re going to be able to meet deadlines?
  • Are you always trying to figure out ways to get things done faster (even when your current pace is fine)?
  • Are you willing to push both yourself and your people to the limit to accomplish a task?

Avoidance of Difficult Conversations

  • When you know you have to tell someone something that will make him or you uncomfortable, do you postpone it for as long as you can; do you sometimes manage to avoid this conversation entirely?
  • Do you sugar-coat performance reviews to avoid arguments and defensive reactions?
  • Are you often willing to accept a lessthan- favourable outcome rather than to engage in a dialogue that might produce a better outcome?

Swinging From One Mood Extreme to Another

  • Do you tend to be either very high or very low and spend very little time in the various emotions between?
  • Are you likely to respond to mild criticism from a boss and think you’ll be fired the next day; are you likely to respond to mild praise from a boss and believe you’ll receive the next big promotion?

Craving Feedback

  • Are you constantly looking for people to tell you how you did; do you practically beg people to tell you you did a good job?
  • Are you fearful of negative feedback; do you try to avoid conversations with those who might say something about your performance that will upset you?
  • Do you have a group of people or one particular individual who you seek out for feedback because you know they will give you a positive response?


  • Do you find yourself thinking about your achievements and career only in relative terms; do they only mean something to you based on how others in your position have done?
  • When you find it difficult to measure your performance, do you reflexively look for another job or another position in the company where measures are more apparent?

Taking Only Safe Risks

  • Do you feel that you stack the deck in your favour when you take on what others perceive to be a challenging assignment; are you reasonably sure that you can complete it effectively before you take it on?
  • Do you do everything possible to avoid risks where you may end up with egg on your face; do you stay away from certain assignments because you know that they’re tough and you may not look good while working on them?

Feeling Guilty

  • Even if you’re working hard and getting a lot accomplished, do you feel as if you aren’t doing enough; that you could handle more responsibility, despite appearances to the contrary?
  • Does every break from the action cause you to feel lazy or slow; do you feel that you don’t deserve your vacation; does a long lunch make you feel like you’re slacking off?
  • When you work an eight- instead of a 12-hour day, do you remonstrate with yourself because you’ve ‘taken it easy’; do you believe that you’re letting down the company, your team and yourself?

This article is based on ‘Fly Without a Net: Turn Fear of Change into Fuel for Success’ by Thomas DeLong. Harvard Business School, June 2011.

Thomas J DeLong is the Philip J Stomberg Professor of Management Practice in the Organizational Behavior area at the Harvard Business School

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