Insecure ‘Overachievers’

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This is Capitalism podcast. 4th October 2018. BBC.

“Highlighting the epidemic of exceptionally capable professionals driven by a profound belief in their own inadequacy. Their ability and relentless drive to excel make them likely to succeed in the competitive environment of elite professional and financial firms, but the work culture is also taking advantage of their vulnerabilities” (the BBC blurb).

Presented by Laura Empson (Cass Business School) who discusses the secretive culture of ‘elite’ investment banks and professional service firms. Bankers, Lawyers and Accountants who claim they feel a “constant need to prove you should be where you are”. These professionals have preexisting vulnerability issues: ‘insecure overachievers’. They are fiercely ambitious but with a constant fear of inadequacy.

Work practices and cultures in ‘elite’ firms exploit these feelings of inadequacy (Dr Alexandra Michel, University of Pennsylvania – ex Goldman Sachs). The professionals feels the need to suppress their biological and emotional needs, and feel they need to be at the beck and call of one’s work, especially in meeting client needs. Michel discussed advice from a woman to put a paper clip under the desk so that, when tired, one could cut oneself on the clip to induce pain to combat that tiredness. Jessica Carmody, senior manager at KPMG and chair of ‘Be Mindful Network’, argued her depression could not be brought to work, it could not be talked about. Everyone pretends they are all ok. Yet they operate at the limits of their physical and mental well-being.

Sir Gerry Grimstone of Barclays, argues the ‘insecure overachiever’ is fundamental to the success of the sector; the dynamics of the client relationship is suited to those who do not have a good sense of self, who is prepared to put the client first, as well as doing a good job for the client. McKinsey’s mantra: “Client First, Firm Second, Self Third”, submitting oneself to the client’s needs can make one feel wanted, something that the IO needs to feel. This is not altruism, or selflessness. It is inadequacy and the need to achieve to combat that deeper emotion of the drive to ‘be perfect’. 

“Driven by the client’s deadline” was also stated by David Morley (recently of Allen and Overy law firm) who described weekends lost to meeting the client’s deadline, and this being relentless: “it’s like a drug” there is excitement at closing the deal, doing a great job. Grimstone also described the pressure of work as ‘intellectual stimulation’, as a positive. Morley seems to describe a ‘be perfect driver’ (Kahler 1975) in both personal and professional life; a relentless drive to excel. These firms look for MBA graduates with personal stories about overcoming significant events in their lives.  This is about much more than talent and hard work. Evidence of applicants’ drive in overachievement is key to recruiting them. Carmody also described this ‘relentless drive’ to overachieve, and talks of relentless raising of the bar for herself.

Morley stated that there may be 1500 applicants for 90 places in the firm, but less than 5% of that 90 make partner. Thus internal competition plus lack of transparency for promotions creates and exploits this culture of driving for overachievement and high performance against unknown standards.

There is no one person designing these cultures, there is no management driving this. There are processes, ‘generative mechanisms’ operating ‘behind our backs’ (Archer 1998) that drive this behaviour. It is structural and cultural with little in the way of human agency consciously promoting this way of working. It’s just ‘the way things are’. Yet, the hours and culture worked are unhealthy, antisocial and antifamily. The stress experienced can be overwhelming.  One CEO described popping pills to mask pain, and changing his shirt 5 times due to sweating, when presenting to a conference of partners. Work can start at 7:30 until 2300 for 6 days a week. The essence of the personality trait, Grimstone argued, is that “one never feels that one has got there”, dissatisfaction is constant.

The pressure can be managed for the first 4 years of the young professionals life, then afterwards the disorders kick in: chronic pain, endocrine disorders, feelings of emotional and physical depletions, addictions, infertility, sleeping in batches of 20 minutes. “Like being an ultra-marathon runner”, but burn out is ever present. It’s not the long hours per se but the unrelenting and sustained basis of pressure for months. Michel argues that one needs deep resilience to deal with stress in a highly competitive world, which is so because because the client demands it, or so it is perceived. If this is ‘overachievement’, then please lets have less of it.

Is this culture changing? Carmody argues about the need for people to talk openly about their personal struggles and says it is possible to be more frank in the workplace. A lack of honesty about personal needs getting in the way of meeting clients needs could have a damaging effect on the clients’ trust in the person, but the short term risk in saying no to a client is very high. Clients may value honesty about what can be achieved later on in the relationship. However, Morley and Grimstone argue that this is just the facts of the case, and that those who cannot cope should leave. It’s a lifestyle that suits certain people and not others. I might suggest it suits a certain alpha male attitude, a bourgeois conception that is anti human. It is the slavery to capital and alienation that Marx eloquently described. 

Michel argues that the IOs bring a certain pre existing internal attitude (I would say, ‘be perfect’ emotional drive) and a physiology of overwork and the need to succeed to the workplace; they are attracted to these firms which then exploit these characteristics. Empson argues that the insecurity that drives some people never goes away and could easily be manipulated by others. So it is both the individual’s need to overachieve because of their innate insecurity as well as the exploitative culture of ‘elite’ firms that results in the emotional, physical and psychological dysfunction.

The working practices described are seen by some as necessary to ‘success’, but to most observers as human beings, they appear to look inhumane, if not bordering on dysfunctional psychological formulations. The emotional ‘be perfect’ driver (Kahler 1975) appears to be described in these interviews and while the positives result in ‘excellence’, the negatives appear to result in physical, social and emotional costs.

Kahler (1975) described ‘be perfect’ as:


  1. I must be perfect, wonderful, correct in every way.
  2. I must succeed in everything I do.
  3. I must get top marks and win.


  1. Exact language, including qualification when they are not sure, such as ‘probably’, and absolutes when they are, such as ‘absolutely’.
  2. Always neat and well-groomed.
  3. Never completely satisfied with what they do.


  1. Hard-working, with excellent quality output.
  2. May achieve great things.


  1. Fears of failure and losing control, and subsequent over-compensation.
  2. Over-work. Not finishing things for fear of criticism.
  3. Expecting others to be perfect too.

I would also question that this is in fact ‘excellence’ or ‘overachievement’. Of all the criteria of success and achievement in human endeavour and relationships one could choose, these goals (meeting the client’s needs in law, finance, accounting) seem to be pretty narrow and antithetical to human flourishing. These IO’s are slaves to capital accumulation and the demands of capitalists. They are following a narrow, impoverished capitalist ethic. They could be seen as classic examples of alienation: from themselves, from each other, from the nature of work and from nature. Their narrow abilities to be good at certain academic endeavours (counting, logic, analysis) just happen to align with what capitalism wishes to reward. It might be better for the IO (and for the rest of us) to consider occupations in the arts, humanities, care, music…while at the same time trying to tame their need to overachieve, to ‘be perfect’. Perhaps, they could reflect on Aristotle’s ‘virtue ethics’, of ‘eudaimonia’, or  Amartya Sen’s concept of ‘Capabilities’…or…or…any number of ethical frameworks that discusses the meaning of human success and flourishing. Some seem to thrive on a heady mix of doing the best they can at all costs to meet client demand, sacrificing their own and their families’ personal lives, earning very high pay, achieving high status among their peers, and perhaps a disdain for the ‘losers’ (everybody else)? Neoliberal ideology and Social Darwinism fits this model of behaviour extremely well and indeed rewards it. It is, to me, a bankrupt moral universe (Whyte and Wiegratz 2016) that is too close to encouraging fraud and corruption in order to get and stay ahead. I suspect the IOs are too knackered to engage in the more nefarious activities of their Alpha peers. 

We can only speculate on the deeper causes. The roots of this ‘dis-ease’ may be found in early childhood experiences, of early childhood trauma? (Johnstone et al 2018)? Could it be their current behaviour is a maladaptive coping mechanism but crucially is a mechanism given high financial reward and status by the capitalist ethic?

This matters because these people have a huge influence in capital markets and the UK economy. It matters also because if IO’s can be found in, and are attracted to, ‘elite’ firms they may also populate and lead other corporations in which the rest of us work. For most of us being an IO is unsustainable and pathological, it does not lead to ‘success’ or ‘achievement’. They are to be pitied (despite receiving enormous sums of money for their pains).

You may ‘be perfect’ if you want to…but don’t ask me to be as well.

Archer, M (1998)  Realism in the social sciences. In Archer, M, Bhaskar, R, Collier, A, Lawson, T & Norrie, A (eds): Critical Realism. Basic Readings. London. Routledge.

Johnstone L, et al (2018) Introducing the Power Meaning Threat Framework.

Kahler, T. (1975). Drivers—The Key to the Process Script. Transactional Analysis Journal. 5:3

Whyte, D. and Wiegratz, J. (2016) Neoliberalism and the Moral Economy of Fraud. London Routledge.