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High achievers, high anxieties

You're a driven executive on the fast track. You work long hours and obsess about every detail, because you want to ensure you're always doing the best job possible.

You're achieving your career dream and should be basking in glory – but instead there's a good chance you're secretly plagued by fears and self-doubts and are prone to resist change.

It's a reality that could ultimately undermine your climb to the top, or sabotage you when you get there, a new book warns.

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Performance anxiety isn't something high achievers usually admit, whether to their closest friends or even themselves, but it's a pervasive problem among leaders, according to Harvard University management professor Thomas DeLong.

"It's necessity, in a way, for top-level executives to have an insatiable drive to achieve. Some overcome their fears, adopt new behaviours and lead enormously successful, fulfilled lives. Unfortunately, they are a minority," said Prof. DeLong, author of Flying Without a Net: Turn Fear of Change into Fuel for Success.

In research he has done as a consultant to top executives, Prof. Delong has found that three things commonly create anxiety in high achievers: fear of being wrong, doubt about the significance of what they are accomplishing, and a feeling of being socially isolated.

"To try to relieve their anxiety, highly driven people are prone to try to stay as busy as possible, compare themselves to others and blame others for their frustrations," Prof. DeLong said. Ultimately, these reactions not only create blind spots in their leadership, but can paralyze highly competent people into inaction and ultimately lead to failure.

His research found that certain types of professions are particularly attractive to driven personalities. Partners in top-tier law firms, investment bankers, surgeons and most chief executive officers have this kind of drive, he said.

Most executives know that they must continually find new ways to do things, but secretly they resist change because they fear taking on unfamiliar tasks they might initially do poorly, Prof. DeLong said. "They want only to do what they know the can do well."

Fortunately, he has found that professionals who recognize their fears and take action to work through their blind spots can become more adaptive and less brittle – and ultimately more successful.

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AVOIDING PITFALLS

Four common traps can keep you from changing. Here's how to avoid them:

Being busy

Symptoms: You walk fast, talk fast and have little time for small talk. You keep your agenda full, racing from one meeting to the next, spending hours each day on your BlackBerry and e-mails.

Reality: Much of your frenetic pace and harried attitude is for show. Deep down, you believe that by staying on the run and creating the impression you are purposeful, you will stay ahead of your worries.

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Prescription: Be aware you are doing this and become more aware of the way people are reacting to you. Impose a limit on electronics, phone conversations, meetings and business travel time. Make time to ask people how they are doing and talk about anything other than job-related tasks. At home, set times when using the phone and checking electronic messages are off-limits.

Comparing

Symptoms: Making comparisons is a reflex reaction: you're fretting that you are not measuring up to others in terms of salary, bonuses, performance, perks and reputation in the industry.

Reality: No one has it all.

Prescription: Put away the mental measuring tape. You will have more of everything if instead of worrying about the competition, you focus on facing up to the risks and changes you have to make to excel.

Blaming

Symptoms: Accomplished, driven people find it difficult to accept feedback if they haven't met all expectations. Instead of accepting that they need to adjust and change, they tell themselves it's not their fault; so it must be someone else's.

Reality: Ask yourself: Are you really blame-free? High-achieving professionals filter their behaviour through their egos, so they feel they must be right because they're smarter than everyone else.

Prescription: Accept that you have a role in a failure. Seek advice from a mentor or trusted expert to help analyze what you may be doing wrong and find ways to avoid making the mistake again.

Worrying

Symptoms: The higher you go on the career ladder, the bigger the stakes and the more you need to make calls in unfamiliar areas that can keep you up nights fretting about a potential crisis lurking ahead.

Reality: Obsessing about potential doom is a self-fulfilling trap.

Prescription: Some worry is normal. But excessive worry can lead to cynicism and negativity, which can be contagious to all members of your team. Your real focus should be on making sure you're doing quality work and adapting to changing needs. Keep reminding yourself that even if a problem develops in one area, you're performing well in others.

Based on Flying Without a Net, by Thomas DeLong

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FACING YOUR FEARS

Thomas DeLong's prescription for facing up to fear of change:

Self-reflection

Mentally review what it is about your job that makes you feel uncomfortable and admit to yourself that you feel safest what you've learned to be good at. Accept that you feel vulnerable doing something you're not good at yet.

Set a goal change

Create a vision of what you yearn to achieve, one that is worth making sacrifices to accomplish. Actions seem less daunting if you focus on the long-term future result rather than difficult present actions or decisions.

Acknowledge need to act

Overcome your fear of vulnerability by focusing on your need to achieve. Make change a goal that you must achieve, and that you will not allow self-doubt to keep you from reaching.

Accept weakness

Think of uncertainty and potential slip-ups as necessary prices you must pay to learn and grow.

Create an agenda

Compile a detailed agenda in the form of short-term, medium and long-range career and development goals. Making a detailed list may feel mechanical, but it is something you can put on your mirror or keep in your car to refer to is a way to keep yourself on track.

Find a support network

Share your goals with a close friend or work colleague who can keep checking in on whether you are progressing and will help you get through rough patches. Ideally this person will be someone who shares a high need for achievement.

Don't hesitate

Act – don't circle back to second guess yourself. Even if it's not perfect solution, having made a decisive plan is better than indecision.

Look in the long-range mirror

Picture yourself not changing, and doing the same thing you're currently doing five or 10 years from now. As a driven professional, the last thing you want for your future is to remain as – and where – you are now.

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