What is the Price of Success?

We’re conditioned to believe that those who work the hardest will be the most successful. Rewards will come to those who are first to arrive and the last to leave. Pedal harder and faster and eventually people will notice. The perception is that the hardest workers are in the “performance zone” where the energy is high and the returns are great.

“Hard work is the price we must pay for success. I think you can accomplish anything if you’re willing to pay the price.” —Vince Lombardi

The recent cultural controversy at Amazon is a great example of the “pedal harder and faster” mantra. The article exposes edicts such as “toil long and late,” and “when you hit the wall from the unrelenting pace, the only solution is to climb the wall” as the Amazonian rules for success. While Bezos has publicly disputed many of the claims, the company manifesto that he wrote himself states, “You can work long, hard, or smart, but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three.”

Even according to Bezos himself, the currency at Amazon is time and energy for money.  Considering that the very definition of energy is the capacity to do work, the logic is twisted. The more time we put in the less energy we have.  The less energy we have, the less productive we are. The cumulative effect becomes a powerful current that leads us right out of our peak performance zone.

Today’s leading companies strive for continual improvement across the board. Reduce costs, improve processes, increase revenue, streamline processes, build a better widget, be first to market, do more with less. But the most successful companies recognize the currencies that drive high performing, bright employees to achieve those goals.  They understand the impact of a healthy culture that prioritizes both personal and professional satisfaction at all levels of the org chart.

In a 2105 job satisfaction and engagement survey (conducted by SHRM), respectful treatment of all employees was the number 1 aspect of job satisfaction followed by trust between employees. Both aspects rated higher than benefits, compensation, and job security.

The companies that nurture healthy high-performing teams breed an atmosphere of success by cultivating the kind of culture that inspires people to take pride and ownership in their individual contributions toward to those goals. In fact, employees who feel their contributions are valued are 60% more likely to deliver their peak performance for their employers.

People who love what they do are more engaged. But, people don’t love their jobs because they are making millions of dollars for shareholders.  While the bigger bottom line may be the payoff for the organization, it’s rarely what inspires the individual. People love their jobs because they feel like their contributions matter.

“Everyone wants to know that what they do really matters.”                                                         Bob Chapman

Employee engagement is measured by individuals’ contributions to organizational success as well as the personal satisfaction people feel in their roles. Highly engaged employees are not just committed. They are passionate about the contribution they make to the success of the team, and they feel valued and respected for their talents. That collective passion fuels a collaborative culture rather than a combative one. These are the teams that recognize the competition is out there, and they inspire, teach, and learn from one another.

Engagement isn’t a utopian ideal. In fact, a sense of belonging and value are innate human needs that contribute to the highest level of self motivation.  Psychologists refer to this as self-actualization, and it ‘s  the realization of one’s full potential – being the best one can be. People actually want to contribute to something bigger than themselves. Their level of engagement is defined by the alignment between the satisfaction they get from the contributions they are able to make.

“The engaged stay for what they can give; the disengaged stay for what they can get or leave to give their talents to someone else.”

A highly engaged culture, however, is not synonymous with a kinder, gentler, happier workplace. Happy people do not automatically create an engaged culture. The irony of a “smile and nod” culture is that, while it might feel good,  it can actually cripple innovation by creating an environment where there is no impetus to change or there is too much pressure against rocking the boat to welcome new ideas.

Overachievers are looked down upon because they make mediocrity feel uncomfortable. Disagreements are uncomfortable. Challenge is uncomfortable. The status quo often wins. The 7 most expensive words in business, ‘We have always done it this way,’ not only prohibit the next big idea, they discourage people from even thinking about the next big idea.

“We tried that once; the guy who came up with the idea isn’t here anymore.”

Full engagement happens in a culture that inspires people to stretch and challenge themselves and each other. It isn’t written down in a binder; it’s deeply embedded in the way people feel about their capacity to contribute. Enabling people to take risks leads to innovation, creativity, and process improvement. But it requires a healthy balance between challenging new ideas and promoting teamwork.

Back at Amazon, Bezos identifies his main job as “maintaining the culture.”  According to the New York Times article, “Of all of his management notions, perhaps the most distinctive is his belief that harmony is often overvalued in the workplace — that it can stifle honest critique and encourage polite praise for flawed ideas. Instead, Amazonians are instructed to “disagree and commit” (No. 13) — to rip into colleagues’ ideas, with feedback that can be blunt to the point of painful, before lining up behind a decision.”

Productive disagreements shouldn’t be sacrificed by harmony, nor should candor and respect. A healthy challenge of ideas is essential. Without it, people fall into the status quo mindset laced with apathy or complacency. However, challenging the status quo only works within the context of healthy relationships built upon mutual respect. If Bezos truly embraces the role of maintaining the culture, he might consider how (allegedly) ripping into colleagues’ ideas with blunt painful feedback impacts that culture.

Organizations that truly want to not only achieve but fuel sustainable peak performance have to consider a new value exchange.  What does it take to engage employees, enable them to contribute productively to organizational goals, and create the conditions where everyone operates within their zone of peak performance?

Care and empathy can coexist in a culture that fosters candor and honesty. Likewise, candor and honesty can be delivered with respect. Culture is not a tag line written in a manifesto. Culture is the atmosphere that is defined by what people do and how they feel about what they do. Companies can be profitable and actually care about the people who help generate those profits. When they do both, they actually increase the capacity to contribute to both personal satisfaction and organizational goals.

“Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.”   -Simon Sinek

Leaders who foster a culture of respect, learning, and individual contribution recognize that there are currencies beyond salary and the corner office.  They don’t take capacity for granted and they don’t mistake time for value. They create the conditions necessary for people to work in their performance zone and encourage them to shift to the renewal zone when they need to. These are the leaders that have the maturity and the vision to recognize that the health of the organization is defined by the health of the people within it.

So, the million-dollar question is this:  What is the price of success? Perhaps it’s a good time to take inventory what you do each day, how it makes you feel, and how it impacts others.  Are you engaged and respected for your contributions? Do you respect and value the contributions of others? Are you contributing to a healthy culture where people feel valued and plugged in to something great?

The only way to do great work is to love what you do. 

Dr. Melissa Hughes is the founder and principal of The Andrick Group. Our mission is to engage, inspire, and educate people to increase their capacity for learning and creativity. We do this by providing tailored, dynamic workshops that help organizations improve their work by understanding how the brain works and applying that to achieve greater productivity, professional growth, and personal satisfaction.

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