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The Superior Worm, the ‘A’ player parable

When we think of ‘A’ player, a fairly consistent picture comes to mind for most of us. ‘A’ players are the people with the “right stuff.” They are the most fiercely ambitious, wildly capable, and intelligent people in any organization. Yet despite their veneer of self-satisfaction, smugness, and even bluster, a significant number of your spectacular performers suffer from a lack of confidence. Ron Daniel, a former managing director of McKinsey & Company, the blue-chip management consulting firm, made the point when he told Fortune that “The real competition out there isn’t for clients, it’s for people. And we look to hire people who are first, very smart; second, insecure and thus driven by their insecurity; and third, competitive.” Translated, many ‘A’ players are insecure overachievers.

Smart – Insecure – Competitive

They’re often the people who went to the right schools and who pushed themselves to win all the prizes. But if they are so smart and competitive, why are they so insecure? For many ‘A’ players, I have concluded that childhood really matters. Often these high performers come from demanding backgrounds where unconditional approval was withheld or at least seen withheld. Getting ‘A’s, for example, did not meet with admiration from parents.

The achievement was typically followed up with the message, “You can do better,” which is never rewarding and often damaging. From your star’s perspective, feedback of this sort obligated him to work endlessly to reach an often unattainable goal. The psychologist Anna Freud (Sigmund Freud’s daughter) and others who studied children raised in this manner discovered that these individuals end up with extraordinarily punishing super-egos. At first, the pressure comes from outside authority figures; later, ‘A’ players impose it on themselves and on others hence pushing their potentials beyond normal limits.

For example, Winston Churchill, who adored his often abusive father, is a case in point. As an adult, Churchill ended each day with a merciless ritual “I try myself by court martial to see if I have done anything effective during the day.” Churchill is not alone. ‘A’ players often assume the parental role and end up voluntarily pushing themselves to extremes, producing more and better work in every endeavor they undertake.

This intense concern with the precise language of praise sounds strange and self-absorbed to most people, particularly when a prized employee is essentially drawing the distinction between an A+ and an A++ evaluation. But vulnerable stars are highly attentive to the language of the person judging them precisely because they spent their childhoods looking intently for clues about whether or not they had fulfilled parental expectations.

What do people get out of such self-defeating behavior?

The psychologist Alfred Adler, the man who brought inferiority and superiority complexes into our everyday language, offered an explanation almost 100 years ago. Adler argued that the most fundamental human need is for superiority, a need that arises from universal feelings of inferiority experienced by us all in early childhood when we are helpless and dependent on others. If we manage these feelings appropriately, we go on to lead well-adjusted lives. But if powerful authority figures thwart our efforts to overcome these feelings, then complexes develop, causing narcissistic grandiosity that can linger for the rest of our lives. Adler asserted that if a person suffers either from an inferiority or a superiority complex (which for Adler were opposite sides of the same coin), then whatever he achieves it will never be enough. As I once heard it put: “Some people go through life feeling superior; others go through life feeling like worms. Narcissists go through life feeling like superior worms.” One might assume that ‘A’ players’ feelings of superiority are a tremendous boon to them since, among other things, these feelings help them to communicate enormous self-confidence to others. But the plight of the overachiever who feels like a superior worm is that he must live with the constant anxiety that he might in fact be inferior to others. Only when you can help your stars address their inflated senses of superiority can they begin to deal with underlying issues of poor self-worth.

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