Are you Disguising Anxiety as Ambition at Work?

A good friend of mine, Justin, came to me with a problem – he had a boss that he was dying to impress…literally. Justin was killing himself in that slow death you all know too well, staying up until 2 AM every night, perfecting PowerPoints until everything was a blur and the next day was here before he knew it.

Justin put in way too many hours, skipped personal time off, and never said no to meetings during dinner time. His emotional attachment to his job was exhausting and started to take over his identity. 

Justin rationalized it by convincing himself that he was just being ambitious and it would lead to bigger and better things. Or that the extra work was necessary in order to fit into a high-performing organization while ignoring the fact that he seemed to be the only one living this way. No one on his team, including his boss, acted this way. In fact, my friend became annoyed when his boss wouldn’t respond to his late-night emails until the next day. It started to turn from a feeling of camaraderie to a sense of irritation as Justin got annoyed that his co-workers seemed to do the bare minimum and get by while he was burning the midnight oil. Equally annoyed, his boss would leave the office at five and not respond to her emails until the next day. 

What was really driving Justin’s behavior? Was it truly a desire to get ahead, or was there something more dangerous lurking beneath the surface? Was it ambition or anxiety that was driving him to work around the clock?

After a heart-to-heart with my friend, he admitted that he was so anxious to please people that he was actually scared to lose his job if he didn’t outwork or (in his mind) outperform his co-workers and be his boss’ top performer. Justin was scared that doing only what was asked of him would come across as lackluster and reflect poorly on his performance. His anxiety, masked as ambition, was causing him to sacrifice his well-being. 

As a proud recovering people pleaser, Heather can now admit that she had a problem. The anger, resentment, anxiety, all of it starting to boil over. Was Justin scared that she would lose her job if she didn’t outperform her co-workers? Ehh. Was Heather scared that doing only what he asked would come across as lackluster and reflect poorly on him? Maybe. Did Justin care about his job more than her boss did? Probably. Did that mean that his boss didn’t care? No. It meant that Justin cared in a way that was crossing health boundaries, and as a result, Justin was sacrificing his well-being.

I suggested that Justin set up a 1:1 with his boss and level set on expectations, but perhaps more importantly, perception. How did his boss or his teammates feel about his around-the-clock habits? Right away, his boss told him that his late nights and hard work didn’t go unnoticed. For a moment, he was pleased as punch. Finally!! His boss saw and appreciated how hard he was working. However, his boss quickly followed up by saying that if he was being honest, the sending of emails at all hours made it seem like he wasn’t managing his time well and unable to get work done during the workday. This was eye-opening to Justin and forced him to reevaluate the impact of his behavior. As tough as it was to hear it, the feedback ended up being the best lesson his boss ever taught him. My friend’s idea to outwork everyone was based simply on a story he was telling himself. He learned that it wasn’t worth burning himself out by chasing down what he thought he needed to do to get ahead.

Following the conversation with his boss, my friend did a little social experiment. As hard as it was, he disconnected from his computer after dinner for a week straight, and guess what happened? NOTHING. No one seemed to care. The work still got done. The world didn’t end (pre-pandemic, of course). In another experiment, he adjusted his style to deliver simply what his boss asked for and nothing more. Guess what happened? EVERYTHING. Justin’s boss thanked him for delivering what was asked of him. His boss interacted with the content and used it as an example for the team. Justin told me that his confidence went up, he got more sleep, he found a flow that worked for him, and Justin believed that his boss started to notice the work he was doing because it aligned to the team’s goals and his boss’ expectations. If the old doubts and fears ever came back, my friend would ask himself: did the boss even ask me to do that? If not, do I care about this? If the answer was no to any of those things, he learned to let it go.

No one is advocating for a clock-in/clock-out attitude, but letting go of your fear and all the “shoulds” enables you to prioritize what serves the company, and more importantly, what serves you. The reality is it is hard to quit caring too much or, to care less, cold turkey. Baby steps. Start by asking yourself what one thing you can remove from your work-life that is not serving you well and make a plan to eliminate it? Your sense of belonging from the company won’t disappear and may even increase as you improve your well-being by caring less.

Have you ever dealt with anxiety disguised as ambition at work? How did you handle it? Comment below or continue the discussion @belongingatwork on LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

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