Whether it was mastering the art of finger painting in preschool or triumphing over the complexities of calculus in secondary school, you’ve always been a star pupil. Your classmates had to toil away for a passing grade but coming top of the class was easy for you. Getting anything less than perfect marks wasn’t even on your radar. Since entering the world of work, however, you’ve experienced something that was once entirely foreign to you: the feeling that you are struggling. No matter how hard you try to impress—making sure your presentations are flawless and hitting every target—the recognition you so long for never comes. Even worse, colleagues whose work isn’t as good as yours seem to be moving up the ladder much faster. How can an approach that worked so well in school not apply in business? Shouldn’t a “good student” find it easy to achieve professional success? We spoke to Karine Aubry, a certified coach and author of an upcoming book on the subject, to find out more about “good student syndrome” and how to get past it.
How to tell if you’re a victim of good student syndrome
First off, a distinction must be made between a perfectionist and a good student. Perfectionists never feel a task is truly finished because they think it can always be improved. This is the case whether the task at hand is for the benefit of themselves or for others. Good students, on the other hand, are I excessively concerned with external expectations. They work hard to figure out what’s expected of them and then to surpass those expectations. While perfectionists hold themselves to the highest standards even when no one else will see their work, good students tend to do so mainly when subject to scrutiny.
Determining whether you’ve fallen victim to “good student syndrome” isn’t straightforward, however, because a good student can be defined according to a variety of criteria. For example, you might have learned this behaviour from school or home life. Perhaps you were taught to listen first and speak second, didn’t receive much praise or positive reinforcement and only succeeded when following instructions. Temperament can also play a significant role: people who are risk-averse and less assertive easily succumb to this syndrome. What’s more, some experts believe it affects more women than men. That’s because, women tend to suffer from a lack of recognition in the male-dominated professional world.
Aubry has identified the characteristics that are common to every good student, regardless of temperament or gender: these individuals want to do well, follow guidelines and obey instructions, and they believe that other people are in a better position to evaluate their work. “People who are considered good students in the workplace put themselves below others, are not able to evaluate themselves and, as a result, don’t get to choose their own destiny,” Aubry said.
The pitfalls of being a good a student
There is a clear problem with this personality type. By adapting to external expectations—first with parents and teachers, and later with managers—good students place their personal progress in the hands of others. This strategy may work at school, but it is less likely to help them to climb the corporate ladder. “The fundamental problem lies in the notion of what it takes to be successful in business,” said Aubry. “Good students think that if they do what is expected of them, things are bound to go in their favour. However, they often lack the recognition they were hoping for.”
The criteria for success in the workplace are very different from those you can expect to find at school. Employees are valued for proactivity, innovation and adaptability, as well as their ability to work in a team and promote their work. In this context, good students are limited by their inability to take risks or to be self-promoters, regardless of what others think of them.
As a result, managers tend to micromanage such employees and stunt their development. “It’s a pretty thankless position. Reliable and hardworking, you’ll often end up doing more than others, but you aren’t going to gain anything in terms of pay or benefits,” said Aubry. Thanks to their self-sacrifice and diligence, good students in the workplace are the first port of call when it comes to delegating important tasks or going the extra mile at the last minute. That is, until the cracks in the facade begin to show.
Turning “good” into a strength
“The breaking point comes when the person realises where they stand. It can be the frustration of watching others move ahead while they are left behind, disappointment at feedback from a manager or because the lack of recognition becomes overwhelming,” Aubry said. Although there appears to be no data on the subject, good students in the workplace are probably more susceptible to developing burnout than the average employee. With stakes as high as these, becoming aware of the issue and hoping it will go away is not enough. In other words, it’s time to leave school behind for good.
“It’s about letting go of a certain way of seeing the world, namely ‘As long as I do things right, it will pay off,’ ” said Aubry. “It requires a retraining period to change ingrained habits, accept certain things and transform your good student tendencies into a strength.”
Here are a few steps to follow:
Get back in touch with your personal standards.
What do I really want to accomplish in this company? What does “a good job” mean to me personally and beyond external evaluation? What do I expect for myself by staying in this company? Once you’ve asked yourself these questions, measure your answers against the reality of your current situation. For example, you might wonder how you’ve ended up overseeing administrative tasks when you were hired as part of the creative team.
Determine your strengths.
“Adaptability is a great quality as long as it’s reasonable. It’s not about forgetting who you are, but about seeing how this flexibility can help you reach your goals,” said Aubry.
Similarly, working hard is a strength when it’s put to good use. “What you need to do is focus your energy on the essential things,” said Aubry. “Tell yourself that you’ll be a good student when it really counts. But in order to have enough energy for that, you have to let go of something else. You must let go of one area so you can focus on another and, gradually, you’ll realise that you can, in fact, be less demanding with certain tasks, without any consequences.” Take the example of an employee drafting a contract: it’s more important to focus on the accuracy of the legal clauses than on the graphic appeal of the document.
Set up an action plan to achieve your objectives.
If you realise that you don’t get enough recognition for your work, then you must determine what specific actions are needed to remedy the situation. You can start by asking for your manager to define your role more clearly, by renegotiating your responsibilities or even by changing position if all else fails.
Avoid falling back into the good student syndrome
Learning to listen to feedback is essential if you want to keep from falling back into old habits. For example, if your manager seems shocked at how much work you’ve put into a minor task, learn from their reaction. After silently congratulating yourself for the exceptional work, make a mental note that next time you can dial it down a little. If you tend to get anxious about delivering substandard work, ask for clarification about how much work is expected with a specific task. Clarifying what’s required of you is a great way to avoid unnecessary stress.
Aubry said, “To reassure yourself, consider doing some small experiments. For example, deliver a job you think is 97% satisfactory instead of 100% perfect and see what happens. You’ll often find that you did exactly what was expected. This helps people who feel overwhelmed to let go and realise that their imagined expectations are not in line with reality.”
To avoid the bad habits that come with being a good student, you should take these steps: stop making assumptions, communicate with your superiors to identify what’s expected, learn how to ask for feedback on your work, and be clear about what’s important to you. And remember to pat yourself on the back when you’ve done a good job instead of indulging in self-flagellation. Letting go of the good student syndrome is hard work, but it’s ultimately very rewarding.
Translated by Andrea Schwam
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