#3 Dirty Achievers with Jonathan Reams

Jonathan Reams


Have you ever been a Dirty Achiever? What makes an achiever dirty? How can we come out clean?

In this podcast Jonathan Reams answers some of these and other questions.

What is a Dirty Achiever?

We all like to achieve things. As infants, we learn to control our body, crawl, walk etc., big achievements in our little worlds! This process of learning is driven by trial and error, experimentation and learning, and is linked to neuroscience, how dopamine makes us want to achieve a goal, and when we succeed, we get a rush of opioids that gives us pleasurable feelings. This is a natural brain chemistry cycle, so its natural to want to achieve. 

This desire to achieve can get hijacked. For example, underneath our drive for achieving tasks, there can be another kind of drive, which is more of a need, unconsciously attaching itself to the success of our task accomplishment. It might be that somewhere in our childhood, rewards, love, positive parental inputs to our self-esteem and so on became conditional upon achieving certain things, like good grades, sporting achievements, etc.

In our adult work life, this pattern becomes unconscious and automatic. We’re internalizing the need to be in control of the outcomes in order to have self esteem.

This need to control outcomes – to win the contract, to get a promotion, to win the race, etc. controls us and distorts are natural drive to achieve. It makes it dirty. We became our achievements, instead of having them.

A very practical example of a Dirty Achiever

I remember one manager who always needed his team’s success to be about him. It is need for personal recognition to be seen as the one who made it happen. It was based on a deeper need, where he believed that he was not ok as a person if it was not his idea, his inspiration to the team, his ability to motivate the team that drove the achievement.

He described his inner world as having a bunch of flies buzzing around in his head so that he actually could not see what was going on outside of him and around him. Each fly was a feeling or thought that came in and distracted his attention.

There were flies like:

I good enough?

Will I come out looking good to the boss?

Who else might get recognition for this idea?

If I don’t win, I’ll be a loser.

This left little time for seeing the needs of his team members clearly. It also created an underlying anxiety that just made him push harder, and be more and more driven to achieve.

What is the impact of having Dirty Managers?

It is a big enough problem for ourselves to manage us and all these distractions. What is really hard for these dirty achievers, is to see the impact they have on others.

Because they are too occupied with all these flies distracting their attention. What they see is justifications for their opinions about others.

For example, with this manager, he was annoyed by his team members because they seemed to ignore his requests for action, didn’t take responsibility for outcomes, they were lying to cover up their incompetence and worst of all for him, didn’t seem to acknowledge his competence. So he interpreted their behaviors and formed the opinion that his team was useless, ignorant, incompetent cowards. And because he held these opinions about his team members, he would document everything they did or didn’t do, take his concerns to his boss or anyone else who would listen to him whine about his team.

Now, how do you think his team members interpreted his actions? They saw him as over dramatizing everything, nagging them too much and wasting their time, and that he was arrogant. Now each of these incidents might be very small, not enough in itself to be worth taking action on or even really being annoyed by. But each instance left a little mark, or put a stamp in their stamp collection book about this manager. And over time, this would accumulate a history of resentment towards this manager. And from that accumulated resentment, they would find themselves unwilling to take action on his requests, or take responsibility for outcomes and certainly filtered out any of their manager’s actual competences, preferring instead to focus on his shortcomings to reinforce the opinion they had now built up about him.

Achievement, or productivity was only coming at higher and higher costs to trust, motivation and goodwill.

What are some typical challenges that these managers face?

  • Learning to manage your own inner world is the first and most important challenge.

What is feeding those flies? What is their source of energy?

We all have blind spots. We all dont see the log in our own eye. Instead we try to take the splinter out of somebody else.

Instead we try to take the splinter out of somebody else.

The challenge for these type of managers is that they can’t see the source of all these distractions buzzing around in their head. They believe they are seeing those things in others, when really it is in themselves. This is called self-deception, and it affects all of us to one degree or another in some aspect of our life.

What is one TIP that will help Dirty Achievers become Clean achievers?

One thing to do is something called ‘humble inquiry,’which is where you actually make use of your ignorance about the source of this self-deception and humbly ask others to help you see what you can’t see yourself.

A simple way you can do is to notice when you have a strong opinion about something. Ask a colleague, especially one who sees things different than you do, but who has your best interest at heart, if they have another perspective on your opinion. Then listen to them without interrupting! Notice not only what they say, but also what automatic judgments come up in you as they talk. Do your best to put those judgments to one side.

If you do this in a genuine way, you will find that you gain some perspective on your opinions and end up with more options to consider using in making judgments and taking actions. You might even find that you can ‘clean up’ some opinions that had gotten ‘dirty,’ and see your team a bit clearer.

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