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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 your efforts will be rewarded.

What is the Price of Success by Melissa Hughes

Amazon is a great example of the “pedal harder and faster” mantra. For years, Amazon has been criticized for treating employees as cogs in the larger business machine. This 2015 New York Times 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 you can't choose two out of three.”

While Amazon is known for its customer-centric approach, innovative capabilities, and long-term vision, the organization is notorious for putting profits over people. Based on interviews with over 100 ex-staff members, The New York Times discovered that Amazon’s culture exhibited the following characteristics:

  • Anonymous evaluations and forced elimination of underperformers: Employees engaged in informal agreements to provide negative feedback for specific colleagues, leading to their termination during annual performance reviews.

  • In hostile work environments: individuals were actively encouraged to engage in intense debates and criticism of their co-workers, often reaching levels of humiliation.

  • Poor work-life boundaries: Some employees were expected to participate in conference calls while on vacation or work weekends and nights from home. Additionally, the company demonstrated a lack of consideration and empathy toward individuals dealing with personal hardships.

Culture 500

Culture 500 provides a data-based view of company culture within some of the largest and most powerful organizations in the world. In a collaboration with MIT Sloan Management, Glassdoor and CultureX, they use cutting edge AI and other technology tools to examine how companies measure up on culture in the eyes of employees.

Culture 500 measures company performance across nine cultural values — agility, collaboration, customer orientation, diversity, execution, innovation, integrity, performance, and respect. These values are among the most frequently cited by large companies in their official corporate culture value statements as well as by employees in company reviews, and they are linked to a variety of desirable outcomes like financial performance, innovation, and employee engagement.

Among over 24,000 Amazon employees, the most frequently discussed cultural value is execution, and the most positively discussed value is innovation. While Amazon walks the talk when it comes to customer orientation and innovation, employees don't experience the same with integrity, performance and respect -- the three most negatively perceived values.

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.

“To win in the marketplace, you must first win in the workplace.” – Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell’s Soup

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 that people go to work for more than a paycheck and are motivated by more than money.

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 not "inside the house," but out there.

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.

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.

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. Leaders who foster a culture of respect, learning, and individual contribution 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.  

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

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