How The Really Successful Get That Way

 

The pendulum certainly does swing.Pendulum Of Foucault In Pantheon Of Paris

Seems to me like we are in the widest part of the arc these days with…analytics. Maybe the better word is “metrics”. Or maybe “algorithms”.

Oh, shoot – let’s just say “math”, shall we?

I continually hear stories about how organizations are driving accountability by taskifying every single function of every single employee and then measuring them according to an allegedly quantifiable “goal”, though if you ask me there are so many things at work which just cannot be quantified.

Such as creating strong relationships with customers.

Such as mentoring the next generation.

Such as being a genuinely nice person.

I have railed against the Tyranny of the Bean Counters for some time. But in some ways I get it, I really do.

I realize that there are some people for whom nothing is real unless they can see it, touch it, taste it – and make a little check mark signifying that it’s been documented.

And I know there are some people who are deeply suspicious and are certain that everyone would take advantage of lax supervision and become total slackers if given half a chance. [because, perhaps, they fear that this is what they would do in that circumstance. Just sayin'.]

And then there are those who have worked for large consulting firms, which take bean counting to a whole new, quite expensive level.

These folks represent the far part of the pendulum’s arc and have created a unrelenting emphasis on quantification and numbers. But it’s my fervent hope that at some point the pendulum swings back and rests at the middle point, where there are good goals – but also where the unmeasurable is valued and appreciated.

Because, in the end, success is not driven by numbers but by meaning.

Doubt me?

A recent study led by Yale professor Amy Wrzesniewski and Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz looked at motivation using a group of 11,320 West Point cadets. They wanted to learn if the most successful people are driven by an internal motive, or by what they call an “instrumental” or external motive, or a combination of the two.

One might think that successful people have a perfect balance of internal and instrumental motives. They care about their work, and they care about getting the corner office – doesn’t that sound like the right mix?

But, guess what? The study showed something…different.

People who are motivated solely by what others will think, or how much money they will make - instrumental motives - tend to be unsuccessful over time than those who are internally driven.

Interesting, huh?

So, what if you have a blend of both internal and instrumental motives?

“Remarkably, cadets with strong internal and strong instrumental motives for attending West Point performed worse on every measure than did those with strong internal motives but weak instrumental ones. They were less likely to graduate, less outstanding as military officers and less committed to staying in the military,” say the study authors.

Now, back to the bean counters.

This study clearly shows that they’ve got it all wrong. Giving people better job titles, more money, the corner office as a prod for increased performance? Not going to work.

OK, maybe you get some short-term results – and you can certainly check a box off a list – but over the long-term your organization won’t really be successful because you’ve transformed internal motives into instrumental ones, which are ultimately much, much weaker.

The researchers say, “Rendering an activity more attractive by emphasizing both internal and instrumental motives to engage in it is completely understandable, but it may have the unintended effect of weakening the internal motives so essential to success.”

Meaning. Purpose. Learning. Growth. This is what we all need to be successful.

So, if you want success, transform your focus. Shift your own personal internal motives – the Big Why of why you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing – toward what it means, how it helps, what you learn, how you grow.

And if by chance you have the power to transform an entire organization, get cracking on amping up theses collective senses in your people – starting from the top right on down.

Because, “Our study suggests that efforts should be made to structure activities so that instrumental consequences do not become motives. Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also — counterintuitive though it may seem — their financial success.”

And so the pendulum begins to swing back.