Professor Empson’s book argues that the people leading the world’s most influential professional firms, including major accounting and consulting firms, law firms and investment banks, are constantly working to maintain an unstable equilibrium which can be thrown off balance at any time, losing them authority and potentially cause chaos.
In one key chapter in her book, featured in Harvard Business Review, she explores how, as professionals, our tendency to overwork and burn out is framed by a complex combination of factors involving our profession, our organisation, and ourselves. At the heart of it is insecurity.
Exacerbating this problem, some elite professional organisations 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 short term, insecure overachievers respond by delivering exceptional performance. Their tendency to hard work is reinforced by the strong culture of social control created by elite professional organisations.
Paradoxically, these professionals still believe they have autonomy and that they are overworking by choice. They do not blame their organisations but blame themselves for being inadequate.
As a result, by the time insecure overachievers become leaders of their organisations, they unconsciously replicate the systems of social control and overwork that helped to create them.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Professor Empson said:
“Work exceptionally long hours when you need to or want to, but do so consciously, for specified time periods, and to achieve specific goals. Don’t let it become a habit because you have forgotten how to work or live any other way.
“And notice how you judge colleagues who are working less hard than you — they may have discovered something you need to learn.
“If you are a leader, you have a responsibility not just to your firm but to the people who work within it. Help your colleagues to achieve their full potential, but do not allow yourself to exacerbate and exploit their insecurities. And remember that your ultimate “duty of care” is to yourself.”
You can read the full article in Harvard Business Review here.
Professor Empson’s book Leading Professionals: Power, Politics, and Prima Donnas is the result of more than 20 years of research into professional firms and their leaders. Read more about it here.
Watch the launch of Leading Professionals: Power, Politics, and Prima Donnas at Cass Business School below: