Dr. Kim Burns

I was once told by a respected colleague that I was responsive and accountable to a fault.

The comment made me chuckle. I take pride in dotting all of my i’s and crossing all the t’s (and just to prove this point, I will admit that I just consulted an online dictionary to confirm there is an apostrophe in the i’s and t’s in the previous sentence).

I was an ‘A’ student throughout my childhood and young adulthood

In my senior year of college, I audited a photography course. I was relieved by my choice to audit when I learned my grade would be an A-, for it would have ruined that semester’s ‘A’ average. My habits didn’t change when I entered the workplace.

Executive Coach Melody Wilding writes in Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work that our people-pleasing perfectionism that worked so well during our school-aged years can turn into an achievement addiction as an adult. The honor roll-worthy grades of school are replaced with validation from supervisors, colleagues, and customers.

The problem is that showing up as an A student at work every day is exhausting, draining, and self-defeating. Putting the needs of others before your own; overemphasizing your weaknesses and underemphasizing your strengths; and over-functioning can hold you back in the workplace and cause burnout.

According to Wilding, the honor roll hangover looks like this:

  • a fixation on goal-setting
  • anything less than an A+ feels like a failure
  • imposter syndrome
  • excessive attention to detail
  • viewing downtime as wasteful
  • craving gold stars
  • beating yourself up when you make a mistake.

At workplaces that value innovation, making mistakes is a valued part of the research and development process. Many of us, however, learn early on that mistakes are to be avoided. This may result in playing it safe at work with low-risk projects and avoiding stretch assignments, which often provide the most learning and growth.

Women’s leadership coach Kim Meninger explores this in her latest Imposter Syndrome Files podcast episode From Dread to Delight with guest Linda Ugelow. Linda proposes viewing mistakes as data without judgment.

Self-care and life hacks (or a big breakfast) aren’t enough to address an honor roll hangover. You have to get at the root cause. 

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