Are Traditional Definitions of Success Hurting Us?

Those of us who have been in management positions since “pre-millennial” times have been led to believe that our “success” is defined relative to the performance objectives of the organizations in which we work rather than achievement of goals and outcomes that matter to us personally. Institutional objectives can vary widely, but a common theme is that our longevity, financial rewards, promotions, etc. tend to be dependent on our ability to achieve what the organizations we work for want us to achieve with our labor, rather than what we want for ourselves.

Over time that reality can create deep, even debilitating dissonance in us as human beings, particularly when we cannot see any connection between our work and some larger purpose. In fact, research on employee satisfaction and retention has found that having a connection to a greater purpose is often ranked higher than compensation. And interestingly, that connection can be as simple as understanding how one’s work contributes to the organization’s final “product” or as ambitious as providing opportunities to support important community or societal outcomes outside the workplace through volunteerism or other community service.

So, is there another way to think about success that better serves ourselves and the organizations in which we work? I am confident that the answer is yes, but it requires us to move beyond traditional paradigms. First, we have to be willing to take a more comprehensive view of what outcomes are “valuable” within an organization so that we can then expand the definition of success in terms of achieving those outcomes. Second, as leaders, it is essential that we provide opportunities for our employees to see tangible connections between their efforts and things that matter to them in ways beyond stated institutional performance goals—and we, as leaders, need the same connections as well. Another, more productive way to look at success, is related to how our work and experience facilitates growth and improvement in us personally. Traditionally, our professional success would be measured by achievement of specific performance targets, working long hours, promotions, etc., rather than the extent to which we develop new skills, mentor other employees, volunteer in the community, etc.

There are enlightened leaders and organizations who have already figured out that finding ways to make work more meaningful also results in more engaged, productive employees, which, of course, benefits the business side of the workplace as well. Success, then, becomes about the extent to which one effectively contributes to necessary organizational performance objectives and also contributes to outcomes that nurture our sense of “making a difference,” self-actualization, and the positive impact we have on others. In that context, the ultimate definition of success is when our efforts actually make the world a better place! For old-school skeptics, not only is that not “pie in the sky” thinking, in the current environment, it may actually be a core differentiator between organizations that thrive and those that don’t.

As a leader, you can redefine what success looks like, support the well being of your employees, and improve organizational performance outcomes by simply broadening the number of areas in which achievement is validated while also supporting activities that allow employees to feel connected to outcomes that matter to them and “make a difference.” If you believe that every business is a people business, then you can’t afford not to.

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