Managing Overachievers vs. Underachievers

Mission Control Center in 2004 A person on a management forum recently asked if we would rather manage an overachiever or an underachiever. It probably comes as no surprise that I would rather manage an overachiever, but I’ve worked with both and there are a few different things that we need to recognize.

For overachievers, you need to make sure that they don’t work too hard or too much. I was once told that the most important job a manager at NASA has is to make sure that their staff take a lunch break. People who are tired and hungry make mistakes, and those mistakes can have serious consequences. In addition to regular breaks, I also think it’s important to make sure that people aren’t working more than 40 hours a week or around eight hours a day. People need time to rest and recuperate, and working more hours in a week actually leads to a reduction in productivity, such that those additional hours are wasted and there may be an overall net loss of productive work.

Overachievers can be perfectionists as well, and you need to make sure that they don’t get hung up on trying to achieve perfection and never move on to the next task. You must eventually coach them into understanding that a particular piece of work can be “good enough,” and they can ship it out as-is. Spending too much time chasing diminishing returns is of no benefit to anybody.

Last for overachievers, you need to make sure that they don’t try to do everything themselves. Channel their energy into the things that they do best, and help them to either release their sense of responsibility for all of the work that could be done, or help them to learn to delegate. Overachievers are likely to take responsibility naturally, so you’re not going to have the problem of finding work for them to do. Rather, you need to make sure that the work with which they are engaged plays to their strengths, so that the organization realizes maximum value from their effort.

For underachievers, you need to engage them and make sure that the work gets done. It’s not impossible to turn an underachiever into an autonomous and highly contributing team member, but it is unlikely. In my experience, underachievers are best used for what I would call “mechanical” tasks; things that don’t require a lot of creative thought or complex problem-solving, but which still need to get done.

While I prefer overachievers, it doesn’t mean that underachievers don’t have a place in any business. Along with my principle of getting work “done enough” so we can move on to the next thing, I view an under-motivated employee as “good enough” for a lot of work. Not everything needs to be done to an awesome level, it just needs to be done.

Last on underachievers, in my experience, the reason they’re not an overachiever isn’t because they are lazy, or dumb, or uneducated. Rather, it is typically they simply have other values or goals.

I’ve known many people who worked dead-end jobs and never got a college degree. In many circles, they would be labeled as an underachiever, but in reality they simply had a different value. Instead of spending time pursuing an education, or working the dozens and hundreds of extra hours needed to climb a career ladder, they invested that time in their family, or their community, instead. Maybe they’re underachieving at work, but that doesn’t mean that they’re underachieving at life.

Understanding people’s motivations and what they value is vital for every manager. If we don’t work to understand our employees, then we will never realize their true potential. If we invest the time to get to know them, and why they do what they do, we can channel that to make sure that, not only are we getting the most value from them, but that they feel valued.

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