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Coaches Diary: The Roots of Underachieving


Olivia Stefanino helps a client look into his past to understand his propensity for underacheiving.

Simon admitted that he had always been an underachiever. Fidgeting nervously, he told me that also had problems with completing tasks – indeed he constantly found that he missed deadlines and let down his colleagues and clients.

I asked him when this behaviour had started – and he replied that he couldn’t remember ever being any different. Simon felt part of his problem was his fear of authority figures, citing one time when he had suffered sleepless nights after a manager had expressed disappointment in him.

He also felt an overwhelming need to please people – and as a consequence tried to take on too many projects at work. However, not only was his work beginning to suffer but his health was deteriorating too. Simon realised that something needed to change – and drastically – but he was at a loss to know how to help himself.

I asked him about his childhood – and whether or not he had enjoyed school. Simon remembered once being humiliated by a teacher in junior school – who had accused him of cheating. In fact, his friend had been copying Simon’s work!

Even though he had only been seven years old at the time, the memory of that humiliation had remained with him throughout his life. Before I could say anything further, Simon’s face turned white and then red – and I knew immediately that there had been another major incident in his childhood that had contributed to his unhappiness as an adult.

Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, Simon let the sorry tale spill out about how he had been mercilessly taunted by five school bullies who had resented his prowess on the sports field. While he had tried to stand up to his tormentors on a couple of occasions, he had soon realised that the odds were stacked against him.

Instead, he had chosen avoiding action – and had given up sport. Avoiding conflict had consequently been a survival mechanism for Simon, who had resorted to the same tactic in his adult life. His fear of conflict had kept him in the lower rungs of management – a source of frustration to his family who had always believed that he had been destined for greatness.

Acknowledging the cause of his difficulties was the first step. Next Simon undertook an exercise in which he conducted a conversation in his head with his adversaries. I explained that the subconscious mind does not distinguish between reality and vivid imagination – which meant the exercise would prove very powerful to his psyche.

First Simon had to express his disgust, humiliation and anger to those who had hurt him as a child. The next step was for Simon to decide to forgive his tormentors. While not condoning their actions, by forgiving his adversaries he would resolve the conflict within his mind – enabling him to create a new, dynamic and exciting future.

With the exercise completed in less than an hour, Simon’s face looked less drained and he left my office promising to set himself some challenging goals for the forthcoming year.

Olivia Stefanino is a leadership development consultant and executive coach. For more information on Olivia's work and to download your free e-booklet “128 ways to harness your personal power”, visit


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