When Lewis Schiff conducted survey research for his forthcoming book, Business Brilliant, he discovered — no surprise — that successful business executives and company builders work far more than typical middle-class job holders. He also discovered that the behavior gets them into trouble.
Schiff, executive director of the Inc. Business Owners Council, describes Harvard Business professor Thomas J. DeLong’s findings on “the paradox of excellence”: “High-performing businesspeople,” Schiff writes, “have a tendency to lock themselves into routines on their path to success. They are so driven and motivated that, as their responsibilities expand, they keep taking on more tasks related to whatever made them successful in the first place. An article DeLong coauthored with his daughter, a psychiatrist, states that ‘When [executives] find themselves in over their head they’re often unwilling to admit it, even to themselves, and refuse to ask for the help they need.’ They are often guilt-ridden and fear failure, so they seek satisfaction doing what they know. They keep the pace even when their activities aren’t the best use of their time, even when their activities exhaust and overwhelm them.”
The difficulty, though, isn’t exhaustion. “Obsessive work habits might not be such a big problem if working hours were devoted to strategy and taking in the bigger picture,” Schiff notes. “But that’s not where the hours go. Instead, they go to putting out fires.”
In executives, this “putting out fires” approach to work is often accompanied by an anxious, distracted leadership style, something psychiatrist Edward Hallowell has dubbed Attention Deficit Trait. Hallowell discovered ADT while treating executives who came to him complaining that they might have attention deficit disorder. Hallowell noticed that these executives showed typical symptoms of ADD in their inability to focus on their thoughts, but that the symptoms disappeared during their vacations, which is not the case with true ADD. Hallowell, writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2005, says that ADT leads to impatient, underperforming executives who have “difficulty staying organized, setting priorities, and managing their time.”
According to Hallowell, “Executives with ADT do whatever they can to handle a load they simply cannot manage as well as they’d like. [They feel] a constant low level of panic and guilt. Facing a tidal wave of tasks, the executive becomes increasingly hurried, curt, peremptory, and unfocused, while pretending that everything is fine.”
What to do? “The most important step in controlling ADT is not to buy a superturbocharged BlackBerry,” writes Hallowell (who was writing back when BlackBerry still ruled), “and fill it up with to-dos but rather to create an environment in which the brain can function at its best.” He pointedly adds: “All too often, companies induce and exacerbate ADT in their employees by demanding fast thinking rather than deep thinking.”
Hallowell, an authority on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, wrote a book specifically for executive managers called Shine: Using Brain Science to Bring Out the Best in Your People.
In his HBR article, “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform,” he addresses a narrower question: To perform at our best, how should we take care of our brains?