Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success

November 04, 2016


An excerpt from Derek Roger and Nick Petrie's Work Without Stress helps us understand the dangers of “toxic achieving.”

Excerpt from Chapter 5,
"Developing a Resilient Personality"
from Work Without Stress:
Building a Resilient Mindset
for Lasting Success

by Derek Roger & Nick Petrie


Toxic Achieving

What it looks Like. Have you ever had a manager who placed you under constant time pressure to get things done, didn’t really care how you got a result as long you got one, and responded to any failure to deliver with impatience and anger? These managers are probably not all that common, but working for them is such a negative experience they’re difficult to forget. We call this characteristic toxic achieving.

Instructions from these toxic achievers are always couched as, “I needed it yesterday.” They think the end justifies the means, and their tendency to anger makes everyone afraid of them. They also tend to be clever manipulators, and they will often cultivate favorites in the team: divide and rule. If all of this behavior sounds psychopathic, to some extent it is.

A helpful way of thinking about behavior, normal or abnormal, is that it tends toward a bell-shaped curve. This is the basis for the idea of a spectrum, where someone might have a tendency toward some of the symptoms that characterize a condition like Asperger’s syndrome, but not all of them, so that person’s condition would lie toward the middle of the spectrum. The same idea is applied to other illnesses as well: people with some of the symptoms of schizophrenia might be considered schizotypic.

It would be wrong to suggest, as some have, that toxic achieving managers are psychopaths—psychopathy is a much more complex issue than being an unpleasant boss. However, they certainly share some of the characteristics of psychopathy, including being extremely self-serving—these are managers who will take credit when things go well but will be quick to attribute blame when they don’t. What motivates toxic achieving behavior is the mistaken belief that threats and blame will get work done, and the most difficult aspect of toxic achievers is the second word in the phrase: they do deliver, which is why they’re often successful. They’re also consummate self-promoters, so they make their successes known to everyone in the organization.

The catch is that they deliver at significant cost not only to themselves but to their teams. Their people do a good job because they’re told to, not because they respect their manager. Dissatisfaction and turnover tend to be high on these teams. The paradox is that you can actually deliver better if your drive to achieve is not expressed in a toxic manner. The cost to toxic achievers themselves is the cardiovascular strain that the impatience and anger bring in their train.

Our interest in toxic achievers came originally from our study of a well-known concept, the type A behavior pattern (TABP). Compared to type Bs, type As were considered to be coronary-prone, though confusingly, they appeared not to be in controlled trials. The problem turned out to be with the measurement of TABP, which was psychometrically flawed. This led us to develop a measure that distinguished accurately between those who showed the behavior pattern and those who did not. On our measure, high scorers on toxic achieving correspond in some respects to type As, and low scorers to type Bs, but the TABP scales provided a flawed index of coronary-proneness. Although being a toxic achiever incurs significant health risks, toxic achieving has a wider focus that includes attitudes and behavior.

We’ve been using toxic achieving exclusively in the context of a management style, but it doesn’t just characterize differences between managers. It can just as easily be the way team members behave, putting unnecessary pressure on themselves to get things done, cutting corners to get those results, and getting angry with themselves or their colleagues when things don’t work out. Although the impact on the team might not be as marked as it is when managers behave in this way, the climate of the team is bound to be affected. The personal costs in terms of sustained physiological demand apply irrespective of the individual’s position on the team, and resilience is significantly compromised by toxic achieving behavior.

How to Change. Changing toxic achieving behavior is made more difficult by its success in getting tasks done, which makes it much easier to justify. If you’re always responding to frustration with anger, notice how you’ll tend to justify that anger to yourself and to others. Here are good questions to ask yourself: “Why am I always angry? And why do I think everyone, including me, should be delivering everything yesterday, at whatever cost to anyone else who might be involved? Why am I so identified with being tough?”

Toxic achievers make the same mistake as people afraid of disclosure, casting everyone into two extreme positions: you’re either tough, or you’re a weak softie. There’s a simple exercise to show yourself what the costs are: portable battery-powered blood-pressure monitors are easily obtained and operated, so get one and take your own blood pressure when you’re relaxed and contented (rare moments for toxic achievers), and then think about the last time you were in one of your habitual angry, blaming modes. Take it again as soon as possible after one of these little nuclear explosions of yours. Shocked? Hopefully. Change sometimes needs a jolt to get it going.

And how often are you like this? You’re bound to have colleagues you think of as being soft. Do they deliver less than you? And is their team happier than yours? The answers are no and yes. Constantly putting people under hostile pressure doesn’t get them to work any more efficiently, and anger leads to a fearful, blaming culture.

One of the problems with justifying our behavior is that it ensures it will continue. The obstacle is in starting to make the change. One way you can help yourself is to make it public. Having decided you need and want to change, put it on the agenda for the next team meeting. Toxic achieving is a habit to which you’ve become addicted, so take a leaf from Alcoholics Anonymous: “Hi, I’m John, and I’m a toxic achiever.” You’ll certainly have everyone’s attention! It takes courage to do this, so remind your colleagues and reports that they shouldn’t expect an instantaneous transformation.

Changing habits takes time, but ask them to let you know next time they see the red mist.

Excerpted from Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success
Copyright © 2017 by Derek Roger and the Center for Creative Leadership
Published by McGraw-Hill Education
All rights reserved


Derek Roger, PhD, is a psychologist who has spent 30 years researching the causes and effects of stress. He was the founder of the Stress Research Unit at the University of York, and is director of the training consultancy Work Skills Centre Ltd. His original research findings challenged conventional ideas about stress and resilience and led to the creation of the training program Challenge of Change Resilience™. Roger has authored more than 100 articles in the scientific press.

Nick Petrie is a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). He works with CEOs and their teams to create resilience strategies for their organizations, particularly in periods of significant change. He is the lead researcher and cocreator of CCL's Change Equation which shows leaders how to lead change in ways that minimize stress and maximize results. He holds a master's degree focused on leadership and learning from Harvard University.


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