Over the past decade, demands on top professionals have increased dramatically. “Nothing has been taken off the plate of these professionals; it’s only been added,” says Harvard Business School professor Thomas DeLong. The rise of technology – from the 24/7 access afforded by Blackberries and iPhones to the new requirement to cultivate a “social media platform” – has only increased the time squeeze. “Technology is supposed to help things go faster, but that isn’t necessarily what’s best,” says DeLong. “It would be beneficial for these professionals to give themselves permission to slow down and be self-reflective or self-aware for just a few moments.”
The result of this pressure, says DeLong – author of Flying Without a Net: Turn Fear of Change Into Fuel for Success – is a growing cadre of overextended professionals who become warped by the pressures of running on a corporate hamster wheel that’s spinning too fast for anyone to keep up. “For the ‘high-need-for-achievement personality,’ we want to do everything perfectly,” says DeLong. “We don’t want to disappoint anyone, we want everybody’s approval, and we want to exceed expectations.” But in a world where that just isn’t possible, that glaring disconnect can drive top performers to become stagnant and risk-averse.
“We want to do everything right the first time,” says DeLong, “so by definition, how are we going to explore new avenues and new arenas if we have to do it perfectly at the very beginning? A number of these professionals we’re talking about become more and more fearful and worried about looking bad or making a mistake. As they age, in many respects they become more and more narrow.”
Unfortunately, this ossification frequently carries over into their interpersonal relationships. “You know it when you’re with that person and you feel like they may or may not be there with you,” says DeLong. “They’re already onto something else.” He’s seen a precipitous decline in professional mentorship over the past 20 years. “What happened with that older generation,” he says, “is that as they’re asked to do more and more things, the first thing that drops off are their relationships. They’re muddier, murkier, and harder to measure [than other types of work], so what they’ve done is rationalize that behavior by saying, ‘I can’t spend that kind of time’ and – here’s your vicious cycle – ‘by the way, Tom is going to leave after a few years, anyway, so why spend that time connecting?’”
The predictable result is an under-40 generation that, sure enough, wants to leave their companies and (often rightly) wonders whether anyone else cares about their future: “They start to be suspicious about the organization and see themselves as free agents rather than saying, I can stay at this firm for the next 30 years. I don’t think it’s just that young people want to move to different organizations; I think it’s because they have experiences where organizations violate and break that covenant.”
This disconnection has a major impact on companies’ ability to thrive and innovate over time. With the decline of mentorship and the rise of executive coaches who are brought in to teach executives the things that their supervisors once showed them, “We’re now outsourcing the most important part of our work, which is spending the kind of time where we really connect and have substantive conversations,” he says. In the best professional relationships, “we need to build up a connection where I can be dead honest with you, and you can be dead honest with me, and we’re not close to that point.”
The first step toward breaking out of this dysfunctional corporate culture, he says, is claiming control over your life. “If we aren’t self-aware, then we allow external forces to set all our yardsticks,” he says, “and consequently, we begin living life for others, rather than ourselves.” Instead, professionals should think hard about their goals by asking some key questions. DeLong suggests possibilities such as:
- Are you having truly substantive conversations, or are all your conversations predictable?
- Am I playing not to lose, or am I playing to win?
- When was the last time you tried something that made you a little uncomfortable?
- Who’s there to help, and what’s your support system like?
- Where do you want to be in 3-5 years?
- If you were to throw a celebration for yourself, what would you be celebrating?
“The final piece,” says DeLong, “is simply having the courage to act and realize life is too short to have lengthy periods of time where we feel hollow or flat or depressed. I want individuals to know that regardless of their age, there’s a way out.”
Do you consider yourself a “high-need-for-achievement professional”? What are your strategies for finding meaning and growing professionally?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on September 7, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.