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10 great questions for managers to explore overachievement

Most of the time, a high-achieving employee is a dream come true. They finish projects ahead of deadlines, and offer a ton of discretionary effort. But at what point does it cross the line into overachievement, and why is that a problem?

Hearing someone complain about an overachieving employee can seem a bit odd. It's like when someone describes a model as "too good-looking." What does that even mean?

Well, as antithetical as it sounds, overachievement can be a problem in the workplace. And not just in the Hot Fuzz 'you're making us all look bad' kind of way. These people can cause huge headaches for themselves and their colleagues. So, you need to choose the right questions for overachieving employees if you want to get through to them.

What do we mean by overachievers?

Before we go any further, we need to get our definitions straight. We're not talking about people who always do their work to an amazing standard without so much as a bad word.

We'd argue that those employees are achieving exactly the right amount. No, when we talk about overachievers, we mean something else entirely. Those who let their desire for achievement push all other aspects of their working life into the backseat.

We've talked about toxic management practices in the past, and this is a lot like that. Some managers end up dehumanising their staff in the quest for productivity. Similarly, an overzealous staff member will ruin the workplace for everyone around them.

Why overachievement isn't always a good thing

Employees who go the extra mile are a godsend. And if your people are giving discretionary effort, you must be doing something right. But if they're burning out, or alienating their colleagues, that isn't sustainable.

So, before we get onto questions for overachieving employees, there's something you need to ask yourself. Where does achievement shift into overachievement, and what impact does that have?

Poor communication habits

Communication is the backbone of any good workplace. Keeping everyone else in the loop is important. Everyone needs to be able to do their jobs and make decisions based on the latest information.

But your highest-achieving staff members can often be your worst communicators. Best case scenario, it's because they're so focused on work that they forget to post updates. Worst case scenario, they don't see the point in informing others because they only rely on themselves.

And the stats don't lie. 86% of executives, educators and employees believe that poor communication causes project failures. 97% of employees agree that communication impacts work on a daily basis. And more than a quarter cite poor communication as the main reason they fail to meet deadlines.

Struggling to collaborate

One of the main reasons people struggle to collaborate is a lack of trust at work. Overachieving employees can often view themselves as the only reliable team member. Or they can be so desperate for personal achievement that they see collaboration as getting in the way.

But no matter how good your top performers think they are, they'll always do better by working with others. For example, the study from the Institute of Corporate Productivity. The study focused on 1,100 US businesses.

Businesses promoting collaboration were five times more likely to be highly productive than businesses which didn't. So, your overachieving staff member might be completing their work at a record pace. But we guarantee, their refusal to cooperate will slow everyone else right down.

The work doesn't challenge them

One reason talented workers can become overachievers is that their job is just too easy. If work doesn't challenge us, it becomes dull. Some respond by disengaging entirely. But others react by doubling down in pursuit of engaging difficulty.

So, if someone on your team keeps biting off more than they can chew, that might be why. But this is something you can only explore with the right questions for overachieving employees.

10 questions to ask overachievers on your team

So, you've identified a potential overachiever. Now, it's time to sit them down and explore the issue. So, here are the questions for overachieving employees you should be asking.

1: Do you enjoy your work?

This might seem like a question with an obvious answer. You are dealing with an overachiever, after all. But this question can be a nice, non-hostile way to start the discussion and get some initial insight.

It's worth trying to understand what an employee likes about their job. Doing so gives you valuable context for their overachieving habits. They might just be getting carried away because they love it so much.

2: Do you find your role challenging enough?

This is one of those questions that we also recommend you ask in performance reviews. Do a job for long enough, and it basically becomes second-nature. Usually, that's a nice sentiment about adjusting to work demands over time.

Or it can mean the things which used to excite you have become bland, effortless and stale. That's definitely the sadder interpretation, and not one that's compatible with long-term engagement.

3: What are your career aims?

Ambition is one of the most common causes of employee overachievement. People want to get somewhere, which means they want to prove themselves. And in moderation, that's a great thing.

But, for overachievers, moderation quickly goes out the window. Figuring out your employee's career goals can shed light on why they're overachieving. It also means you can take steps to support their career development. And for ambitious overachievers, that's usually the only way to help them chill out a bit.

4: How do you feel about your team?

Of all the questions for overachievers, this is one you might have trouble getting a clear answer for. Anyone with even basic social awareness will worry about potentially bad-mouthing colleagues.

But if you can give them believable anonymity to air these grievances, then do it. As we've noted, overachievers can struggle to trust and collaborate. Understanding these issues can help you to figure out why they avoid working with others.

5: Are you concerned about burnout?

One of the main reasons to worry about your overachievers is their risk of burnout. But the most frightening part is that they might not even realise it's happening. But in 2020, a survey of 1,000 UK employees found that 22% have experienced workplace burnout.

People pushing themselves through burnout is like a marathon runner hitting "the wall." With enough determination, they can get a second wind. But that's just the illusion of recovery, because they haven't recuperated at all.

6: Are you planning to take some time off?

Let's say you're worried about your overachievers burning themselves out. Your immediate priority should be to get them to take a break before they, well... break.

Employees, especially ambitious ones, can be reluctant to take time off. They worry that others will deem them weak or unreliable. And ultimately, they're terrified of it harming their career prospects. As a manager, you need to encourage staff to use their time off. Asking about their holiday plans is merely the first step.

7: Are you interested in other parts of the business?

Let's loop back to the idea that overachievers aren't being challenged enough. If they've been there for a while, they might have gotten everything they can out of their current department. Secondments or transfers can give employees a new lease on life. They're a great way of spicing up someone's work life if you're unable (or unwilling) to promote them.

8: Do you feel you're able to delegate effectively?

Delegation is generally a manager's purview. But even regular employees need to ask for help sometimes. This question should lead into further discussion about why the employee won't share their workload. If you haven't already, this question can identify toxic levels of ambition or a lack of trust.

9: Would you like more flexibility or autonomy?

If an overachiever is causing issues for co-workers, sometimes, the best response is to let them do things their own way. Remote work is more popular than ever. Autonomy is great for engagement and self-motivation. So, while overachievement can become problematic, giving people these options can turn it back into a strength.

10: Is there anything else you'd change about your role?

People aren't always driven by classic ambition. Sometimes, they just want to escape their current role. Other times, they feel doing everything themselves is the only way to stay afloat. Asking people what they would change about their jobs can expose issues you never even considered. But enabling your employees to job craft has a host of other benefits too.

For starters, it helps them to engage and take pride in their work. But it also helps to develop a more open manager/employee relationship. If there's something bugging them, they can come to you rather than act out.

So, there you have it. Those are the most important questions for overachieving employees to bear in mind. But don't forget, each question should just be a launching point for further discussion.

We've written a great guide on how to have better performance conversations with your people.

Fancy a free copy?