Last week’s events and the general reaction to them reminded me that for every achievement there is a criticism of that achievement. Reach a goal and rather than celebration or satisfaction there is criticism and analysis from just about everyone, even your friends. You should have done it sooner, you should have done it this way, or what you did is a start but its not enough.
It seems that the more you achieve, the more resistance you pick up for future achievement. That is the achievement paradox — the more you do, the less other want you to do.
- The Australian’s call this the ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ where the tallest poppy in the field is assumed to be the first one to be cut. The moral of the story is achieving more, standing out leads to being singled out and cut down.
- Bill Cosby calls this the “Good student penalty” as he pointed out that he learned as a child that when he did well in school people gave him more work and expected him to do better with that addition work. As he points out, what incentive is that?
- Mary Ann Maxwell, a colleague, calls this the good management penalty as effective managers get more work and harder problems.
The achievement paradox is deeply embedded in organization design and human resource practices and policies. Predefined jobs, prescriptive responsibilities, crude measures of accountability and subjective performance measurements and rewards all fuel the achievement paradox.
What is so bad about making sure people know what their jobs are and measuring their performance against those jobs? Nothing on the surface as clarity of role and responsibility is essential to coordinating multiple people working in complex and critical processes.
So long as structure does not prohibit or inhibit achievement
Individual achievement is an essential part of organization or team achievement. While there is no “I” in team there is always a “U” in success. Too often corporate and organization structures, critics, competing interests see to feel better about themselves by tearing down what others and other groups have achieved.
Shortsighted business pundits call this competition, or creative tension. It creates unnecessary cost, conflict and friction.
Organizations who have a history of high performance, a history of achievement work different than others. They are just different places to be in.
Overcoming the paradox of achievement, letting all poppy’s grow tall and people not be penalized for doing better requires a number of changes in the way we think about work and manage that work. Here are a few thoughts.
You need to define real achievement — where results make the pie bigger rather than just change the size of my piece relative to yours. Achievement is not a zero-sum game. If your winning requires others losing, that is exploitation not achievement.
Loosen up job descriptions to encourage people to work together rather than work to rule. Narrowly defined jobs — often described in three words like SAP Design Analyst — give people ample opportunities to exclude people and their ideas. A leading European company raised its level of achievement by replacing 38 different job descriptions with 8 broader roles. The broader descriptions enabled people to see each other as peers — we are all analysts, or all designers, etc. which reduced the formalities required to bring people together to solve complex issues.
Migrate from individual to team/project responsibilities as there are only so many hours in the day and only so much one person can do. Narrow responsibilities lead to narrow results and require greater coordination and ‘management’ to knit together. However, a team has more capacity, knowledge, experience and raw power than each person. Giving the project responsibilities creates a common purpose for the team that allows achievement to happen.
Be able to recognize the current situation for what it is, rather than what we would like it to be or the history of how we got here. Achievers look at the world and take it for what is and then ask – where do we go from here?
Achieving leaders do not punish people at the start of the problem solving process; rather they know that those who created the problem are those most familiar with the situation. Coaching, correction and support come as part of the plan to move forward not as remedial steps before we start.
Reward for actual rather than perceived performance. Subjective criteria is important in identifying performance that falls outside of the norm, provided it does not punish people who do more than is required of them. Leaders recognize that achievers will tend to upset people, be perceived as rocking the boat, and attract negative feelings from those who feel the achiever is making others look bad.
Too often, people who achieve, teams that achieve are criticized for their results. This is a sign of weak management and weak culture. Achievers attract criticism for the simple reason that they have done something that can be criticized. Others who are in meetings, discussing, socializing, coordinating have not.
There are always reasons not to do something.
A leader, an achiever and achieving team or organization moves forward, makes something happen, and then follows that up with creating more value.
So last week was a big week, there were achievements around the world and now its time to ask, where do we go from here?
One thing we can do is look at our organizations and sees are we creating an environment for achievement or are we fostering a culture of criticism and grudging acceptance. I have worked in both kinds of organizations and I can tell you, its a lot more fun for everyone when people are getting things done.
Break the achievement paradox and see what you and your people can do.