Watching Out for Office “Summit Syndrome”: When the Passion Starts to Plateau

Excerpt from “The Art of Performance: The Surprising Science Behind Greatness” by Jeroen De Flander.

Andrew Thomson is a 36-year-old Ivy Leaguer with a dream career at an elite investment bank. He was quickly promoted from covering individual wealthy clients to managing the largest financial team in the U.S., overseeing $4 billion in assets. If investment banking were an Olympic sport, Andrew Thomson would be a candidate for the gold medal. In recent months, however, something changed. What started as a slight diminishing in his edge turned into boredom. The buzz was missing. He wasn’t driving himself as hard to find those opportunities that delivered exceptional returns for his clients. He ignored the friction among his fiercely competitive team members and was vulnerable to distractions. He became obsessed with completing The New York Times crossword puzzle every day. And much to his surprise, when friends called with a proposal to row the Atlantic, he found himself genuinely interested. He started overeating and cocktail hour became his favorite time of the day, drinking heavily. Although the firm kept treating him like a star, he knew this couldn’t last. “Did I lose my edge?” he wondered.

What happened with Andrew Thomson? Why did his achievement journey stop? We all go through life experiencing growth until we get stuck at a plateau. But what is actually happening when this occurs? Have we suddenly reached our limits? Is the pressure too much? Is this the famous “Peter Principle”—where people have ventured out too far beyond their capabilities? We learned that activation via novelty is crucial during the initial stages. But it seems we need novelty at later stages of interest development, as well. And if we don’t, we stop our journey, or worse, move backwards and impact our performance negatively. Science calls this phenomenon the “Summit Syndrome.”

George Parsons and Richard Pascale from Oxford University studied the Summit Syndrome for more than two decades in companies such as GE, Intel, IBM, and McKinsey. Their research reveals three distinct phases:

1. The approach stage: Leaders have mastered most job challenges. Things start to come automatically. The novelty that triggers their interest fades. And so they try harder to get the adrenaline rush of the climb back.

2. The plateau stage: The summit has been reached and the job becomes business as usual. While a less ambitious person will start to cruise at this point, high achievers will push the pedal down even more. But the rush is gone. Everyone around them sees their success. They are socially recognized for their skills. But inside they feel empty, anxious, and disoriented. “For seasoned executives who have made a series of s-curve climbs, the dominant concern is a loss of legacy,” Parsons and Pascale point out. “Having built a sterling reputation, they now wonder if those can be sustained.” At this point, the first negative effects on performance will kick in.

3. The descending stage: Performance starts to drop significantly and becomes visible for others. The individual becomes interested in meaningless activities and looks for distractions, unconsciously sabotaging further career progress.

It’s interesting to point out that this phenomenon has nothing to do with burnout. In fact, it’s the opposite. It is not caused by intolerable workloads. The Summit Syndrome is a sneaky passion assassin. As there isn’t enough novelty anymore to feed our interest, it kills our interest development. And if things are not corrected, we end up with boreout.

According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, the faster people rise to the top, the harder the Summit Syndrome hits home. The Summit Syndrome isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime experience. On our way to the top, we have to navigate several plateaus. It’s like a stair climb in a skyscraper. But the stairs are hidden in a different location on each floor. We need to look for access to the next level. If we don’t, we remain on the same floor—a plateau.

If you feel you have reached a plateau and your interest seems to have disappeared, here are three ways to get back on track.

1. Actively look for and appreciate the nuances. We know now that our brain craves novelty. By learning to look at the nuances, we keep novelty in our daily routine. And while the rush might not be the same as the one we get when starting something new, it does work to keep our interest triggered.

2. Find and ride the next wave. Overhaul your way of working and broaden your skill set to evolve to the next level.

3. Connect your interest with purpose. Passion is interest on steroids that needs novelty and perceived value to keep going. Science found there is another motivational engine you can tap into: purpose.

Excerpt from “The Art of Performance: The Surprising Science Behind Greatness by strategy execution expert Professor Jeroen De Flander.

Professor Jeroen De Flander is a keynote speaker and strategy expert who has advised more than 36,000 leaders in 40-plus countries. Follow his blog (50,000 weekly readers) at: jeroen-de-flander.com

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