The surprising danger of being good at your job

Science confirms what high-performers have known for years: It’s not easy being so competent.

A new study from Duke’s Furqua School of Business suggests that people with high-self control — the kinds of people who remember birthdays and choose the salad instead of the fries, who take on extra projects at work and resolve conflicts easily — might actually pay a price for those virtues.

“People always talk about how having high self-control is a good thing,” says researcher Christy Koval Koval, a PhD candidate and first author on the study, published in this month’s “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.” And in many ways, it is a good thing: “Go-getters get what they go after,” she points out. “They’re better at goal pursuits. They make very good relationship partners.”

They’re also better off financially than their less disciplined peers; they tend to be in better health; and generally have higher quality personal relationships.

But all that comes at a cost: High-self control people, the researchers found, end up burdened by their own competence.

For one thing, people will expect more of you — whether or not that’s actually a valid expectation. In one study, Koval and her colleagues asked undergraduates to rate how well they expected a fictional subject to do academically based on whether or not he accidentally binged on new music at the iTunes store.

In another, they asked people to assess how good that fictional subject was at his job — based on how good he was at saving for a new apartment. The results were the same: the more self-control people exhibited, the more people expected of them.

To be fair to the rest of us, that’s not an irrational assumption, the researchers point out: self-control does predict good performance. Nor is it all bad for the achievers — it is nice to be depended upon. But by expecting more of those people, we may be burning them out, Koval says.

That’s because while the researchers found we tend to assign high self-control people more work — which, again, makes sense — it’s not actually any easier for them to do that work, even if it seems that way. Tasks are just as effortful for high self-control people, Koval explains — it’s just that they’re better them. “They persist longer,” she says. “They might adapt better strategies.” But while science might appreciate you, your boss probably doesn’t. People tend to underestimate how much effort go-getters put in.

All that leads to a problem: high self-control people feeling more burdened by their work relationships then their less disciplined peers. They sacrifice more for the coworkers, the researchers found, even when those sacrifices come at the expense of their own goals. And that same dynamic plays out in romantic relationships. Being reliable is draining.

Which doens’t mean go-getters should stop go-getting. The benefits of high-self control still far outweigh the costs.

But managers (and co-workers, and romantic partners) should take note: if you take those high self-control people for granted, you may risk losing them. While relying on go-getters might be a good short term strategy — they will get stuff done — in the long run, Koval suggests, they “might become dissatisfied with this burden we’re placing on them.”

Accordingly it’s essential to recognise them for their (probably underestimated) efforts. They need to feel “a return on the effort they’re putting in,” she says.

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