Professor Laura Empson pulls back the curtain on insecure overachieving professionals and explains how they can come to accept damaging patterns of overwork as inevitable and even desirable
While 6% of Harvard Business School’s Class of 2021 joined the healthcare sector, their peers continued to flock to professional services, with 23% going into consulting.1 In this, Michael Wong’s latest Harvard Business School Healthcare (HBS) Alumni Association Q&A, Professor Laura Empson, senior research fellow at the Harvard Law School, pulls back the curtain on insecure overachieving professionals and explains how they can come to accept damaging patterns of overwork as inevitable and even desirable. With her research findings, Professor Empson provides important insights for the various stakeholders—those who are and those who hire these high-achieving professionals.
Michael Wong: When I asked an HBS alum who had secured a partner role at McKinsey, often seen as the Holy Grail for elite business school students, what the difference was between working for a consulting firm versus a premier Fortune 500, she explained, “Expecting someone to work 16-18 hour days, for weeks on end, to deliver a desired result is not going to be as readily accepted in a corporation as it may be at some professional service firms, since that is frankly not what they signed up for.”2 Professionals who join consulting, investment banking, private equity, or other professional services firms know what they are signing up for, so what is the problem? After all, like the Class of 2017, nearly a quarter (23%) of last year’s HBS graduating class pursued consulting.
Professor Laura Empson: From my research, I have identified how the inclination to overwork and burn out is framed by a complex combination of factors involving our profession, our organization, and ourselves. At the heart of it is insecurity—both personal and professional. Exacerbating this problem, some elite professional organizations deliberately set out to identify and recruit “insecure overachievers”— exceptionally capable and fiercely ambitious individuals, who are driven by a profound sense of their own inadequacy. In the past, firms such as McKinsey and Goldman Sachs have been explicit about their policy of recruiting and promoting insecure overachievers—though given the new societal emphasis on work-life balance, the rhetoric of elite professional firms has become more circumspect.3 Firms want to hire these kinds of people because, in the short term, insecure overachievers respond by delivering exceptional performance. The problems start when these elite firms reinforce this sense of insecurity through their tournament model of promotion and their mechanisms of social control. Paradoxically, such professionals still believe they have autonomy and are therefore consciously choosing to overwork. They do not blame their firms for driving them too hard but blame themselves for being inadequate in needing to work such long hours to get their job done. Subsequently, by the time insecure overachievers become leaders of their organizations, they unconsciously replicate the systems of social control and overwork that have enabled them to rise to the top.
Elite professional organizations offer insecure overachievers the security of exceptional psychic as well as financial rewards: i.e., they can enjoy the comforts of being associated with an elite organization and are able to incorporate this elite status into their own identity to counteract their sense of insecurity. Their actions demonstrate how the ‘comforting’ social control mechanisms embodied in strong cultures can translate into cult-like conformity among senior professionals. The outcomes are often the dark side of social control and its most typical manifestation—overwork.
Employees are, therefore, willing to routinely work 70+ hours and in some cases 100+ during protract “crunch” periods, in exchange for highly compensated and coveted roles. But they may not be aware of the talent management strategies that underpin this? One Director of HR of a world-leading professional firms explained to me her firm’s policy of deliberately seeking graduate recruits who fit the profile of insecure overachievers. She explained for insecure overachievers, a job offer from her firm provided them with the comfort of knowing “you are special because we want you to be one of us.” Once they had absorbed the status of the firm into their own identity, they would be willing to “do anything” to remain part of the firm.4
I have warned some of the recent college graduates with whom I have worked over the years, who were interested in pursuing an MBA and then a career in professional services, that the 50 to 60+ hours/week they were clocking in at a Fortune 500 still provided some work-life balance. Once you hit 80 hours,5 your weekends are shot and while the compensation might be great, you likely will not have time to enjoy it. Can and will professional services’ ecosystems ever be changed so that firms and employees have a challenging but healthy workplace model?
To begin with, not all professional services operate in this manner and others have recognized that it is unsustainable and are struggling to change. But, to undo this unhealthy relationship between the professionals and their organizations, change needs to happen at multiple levels.
For professionals, especially those who can admit that they are insecure overachievers, the most important aspect is to understand the effect that your own behavior and your employer’s attitude is having on your physical and mental states. The perpetual anxiety, which is a common theme expressed by my interviewees, displays itself in terms of how people struggle with the sense of never being good enough. Rather than simply feeling inadequate in their role (i.e., imposter syndrome), they try to make this feeling go away by working ever harder, to ensure that they “deserve” their success. But instead, their success may simply amplify their feelings of insecurity, as I explored with the professionals I interviewed for my BBC documentary on insecure overachievers.6 As one very senior lawyer said to me, when talking about him and his fellow partners, “We all feel scared, all of the time.” And, as they became overly attached to their elitist organizations, they succumb to the peer pressure from their colleagues and their culture. The irony is that very wealthy and successful people, whom you might expect to have relatively high autonomy and control over their lives, may end up feeling that they have no choice.
Second, for senior executives of professional services firms who have survived and thrived in this environment and risen to the leadership positions, the pandemic and Great Resignation have provided a unique window of time to reflect on their organizations’ cultural controls and operating models. While an 80+ work week may still be a norm at many of these firms, the pandemic has prompted many professionals to question some ”legacy” assumptions and enabled them to experiment with alternative ways of working. When I was a strategy consultant, on occasion I worked 72 hours without sleeping in order to respond to the partner’s requests ahead of a client presentation. Was I really doing my best work? Of course not. Could the partner have managed me and the client better? Of course, he could. While there are no simple solutions to the changing and conflicting sets of expectations of clients, leaders, and their professionals, smarter leaders understand the potential value of rethinking the work that their firms perform and how their employees do it.
Finally, buyers of professional services should reflect upon their behaviors and what the potential ramifications might be. As part of their increased awareness of ESG issues, many are reflecting upon the consequences of the purchasing patterns. They may examine their supply chain carefully to ensure they are not conspiring in the bad working practices in “sweat shops” in developing countries. Yet, just because they pay the professionals in their home markets very well, they ignore the more negative consequences of their expectations.
As I shared in the Harvard Business Review last year, the pandemic represents a liminal phase in our economic and organizational development. We have been tested to our limits.7 Still, these experiences have offered opportunities to challenge not only historical norms within our professional organizations but also to create new and more sustainable ways of working.
Professor Laura Empson is a Senior Research Fellow at the Harvard Law School and Professor in the Management of Professional Service Firms at Bayes Business School, London. Professor Empson received her PhD and MBA from the London Business School.
Michael Wong is an emeritus board member of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association
1. https://www.hbs.edu/recruiting/employment-data/Pages/default.aspx (Private Equity was 14%, Venture Capital was 7% and Investment Banking was 4%).
2. Interview with HBS alum Katherine Bach Kalin, https://www.hbshealthalumni.org/s/1738/cc/21/page.aspx?sid=1738&gid=11&pgid=252&cid=123957&ecid=123957&crid=0&calpgid=2677&calcid=78391
3. Mandis, S. What happened to Goldman Sachs? An insider’s story of organizational drift and its unintended consequences, Harvard Business Review Press, 2013. Hill, M. “Inside McKinsey,” Financial Times, available at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/0d506e0e-1583-11e1-b9b8-00144feabdc0.html (accessed 25 April 2015).
4. “Leading Insecure Overachievers: The Comforts of Social Control,” In Empson, Laura, Leading Professionals: Power, Politics and Prima Donnas, Oxford University Press, 2017.
5. 12 hours/weekday and 10 hours each weekend day.
7. Empson, Laura and Howard-Grenville, Jennifer, “How Has the Past Year Changed You and Your Organization?” Harvard Business Review, March 10, 2021.