The Problems with Overachievers on Agile Teams

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However, the overachiever is focused solely on the work and on himself, to the detriment of the team. Whenever things appear awry, the overachiever takes over and personally does the work. When the project is going swimmingly, he creates a false sense of urgency. He may, perhaps unconsciously, believe that his way of doing things is best. He may be totally unaware of his behavior.

An overachiever is often seen by anyone who observes the team as an informal leader. Management praises him instead of the team for heroic efforts. After a flurry of production problems, the true effects of the final rush—high staff turnover and morale at an all-time low—become apparent. The hero stays on, waiting for the chance to prove himself once more as the lynchpin.

Why Is an Overachiever a Problem?
Expectations, team growth, mutual trust, group direction, and commitment can be negatively impacted by an overachiever as he sets a pace that few can match, which in turn puts a lot of stress on team members. Managers may judge team members relative to the overachiever, saying “ Joe’s a good coder and puts in his forty-five hours, but Fred is working even more hours and doesn’t waste time playing games at lunch with the others.” Management often favors a person like Fred and overlooks and ignores someone like Joe. As Carly Chynoweth put it so aptly in the The Sunday Times, when there is an overachiever in the mix, the overachiever can turn team into subteams: “You get a sense that there’s an in-crowd who the leader rates and others who are left by the wayside and don’t know why. They will become disengaged and leave.” [3]

Another problem is that overachievers emphasize short-term results rather than developing their teammates or giving feedback. In believing that they can do the job better than anyone else, they deny others the opportunity to learn and grow. In this way, no individual can improve to become as productive as the overachiever.

Team members might feel that the overachiever doesn't trust them if he routinely pushes them aside when difficult situations arise. Their initiative and responsibility evaporate as they take on the routine, task-focused work. They are intentionally or unintentionally kept in the dark by a hyper-busy overachiever. This sentiment is best summed up by Daniel Goleman from his article, “Leadership That Gets Results,” published in the Harvard Business Review: “People [working for an overachiever often] do not understand where they are going. They’re just following the walk of this turbocharged leader, who doesn’t direct the team but focuses on output. They get annoyed, exhausted, and feel that they need to second-guess what the leader wants because they’re not being told.” [1]

User Comments

1 comment
Dave Maschek's picture

The key to this article was that the overachiever "secretly felt insecure". The authors make a good case how overachievers can subvert an Agile team by trying to do everything and thus not allowing others to function as full team members. However, I have seen insecure underachievers cause trouble on a team also. The corporate world has insecure people who can subvert a team by not sharing information, playing safe by always painting a rosy picture, putting up unnecessary roadblocks, giving outdated advice, stubbornly acting against Agile principles, insisting they are always right and so on.  

August 14, 2014 - 12:25pm

About the author

Charles Suscheck's picture Charles Suscheck

Dr. Charles Suscheck is a nationally recognized agile leader who specializes in agile software development adoption at the enterprise level. He is one of only 11 trainers worldwide and 3 in the US certified to teach the entire Scrum.org cirriculum.  With over 25 years of professional experience, Dr. Suscheck has held positions of Process Architect, Director of Research, Principle Consultant, Professor, and Professional Trainer at some of the most recognized companies in America. He has spoken at national and international conferences such as Agile 200X, OOPSLA, and ECOOP on topics related to agile project management and is a frequent author in industry and academia. Dr. Suscheck has over 30 publications to his credit.

About the author

Andrew Fuqua's picture Andrew Fuqua

Andrew Fuqua is an agile coach with more than twenty-five years of experience programming, managing, and coaching. Much of his experience is with commercial software development at various independent software vendors, though he's had increasing experience with IT organizations for the the last seven years. Andrew has been using agile methods since 1999, including five years pair-programming in a test-driven environment.

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