Most of us invest a considerable portion of ourselves in accomplishing our goals at work. However, in a competitive work environment, there are times we are winners as well as losers. It can be that the other team receives the better assignment, another employee receives the promotion desired by others, or one employee is selected to lead while others must follow. The idea that effort does not always lead to success is hard to accept. It is only human to assume that effort should yield the desired result regardless of other factors. How often have you heard the statement “I worked so hard and I do not know why things did not turn out my way?” Moreover, through our culture, we have instilled in our youth that effort is as important, if not more important than the outcome through our education and sport systems that recognize participation more than success. It has become taboo to point out success or identify the “winner” if it will impact the feelings of others. Although I understand the importance of balancing individual recognition with maintaining interest and morale, we have to be careful in not creating reward structures that possess too similar payoffs. Finally, if someone is going to “put themselves out there” and compete for something, we tie our identity partially to the outcome.
If we allow the benefits of effort or self-importance to equal outcome, we will reduce our overall attainment and excellence. In other words, we will create an environment where mediocrity is an acceptable as well as desired state.
I recently spent some time with a team that had promoted someone internally to lead the department. Let us call her Alisha. Alisha was very qualified and possessed each of the core competencies that would make her as well as the department successful. Through a long and deliberate process, senior management had interviewed multiple candidates, allowed employees to question the applicants, conducted structured interviewing, and matched the needs with the abilities of the candidates. Alisha was the best choice on each of the criteria. The “fly in the soup” was that one of the other candidates came from within the department and felt that she should have been selected.
We can call the other internal candidate Jane. Jane was confident she would be selected and communicated her confidence to others in the department, changed her work assignments to reflect the new position, and mentally prepared herself for her new role. Although Jane was much less qualified than several of the other candidates, she was a good worker and put a lot of effort into the application and interview process. When Jane was not selected, she reacted very poorly. A review of the process revealed that she was treated fairly and simply was not the best candidate based on the available pool. Anyone would feel disappointed about not being selected for a short period of time. However, Jane immediately concluded the process was unfair and her effort was not recognized. She repeatedly asked senior management why her effort was not being recognized in the selection process and how Alisha could be selected instead of her. Over time, Jane reduced her output to “punish” the department and send a message that her effort should have been more recognized.
Some of us may know or even have felt like Jane in the past. What are some lessons we can all learn from her experience?
Effort is necessary, but not sufficient to win
Nothing is accomplished without effort, but rarely will effort be enough to win. It takes skill, timing, relationships, and experience to be successful on a consistent basis. As we plan our career, it is important to ensure that we have all of the ingredients of success.
Losing is as important as winning
Losing forces us more than winning to take an inventory of our strengths and weaknesses. Probably the most honest answer of who we are comes out of self-examination during adversity. Winning has a certain elixir that leads us away from self-evaluation and prevents us from looking at ourselves realistically. In addition, losing forces us to take a second look at the nature of the forces that impact the work place. As a result, we just learn more from losing.
How we lose says a lot about us
The manner in which we accept losing says a lot about us personally and professionally. In Jane’s case, she demonstrated to the management team that she was not the right choice since she did not possess the maturity to handle the results. Just as losing teaches us more, typically people look more closely at someone that loses. Something in humanity is drawn to adversity as much as greatness. This inherent curiosity that tempts us to slow down to look at an accident also lures us to take a closer look at those that don’t succeed. Our future success depends on what our peers and supervisors see when we fail.