(2 minute read)
Many years ago, I mentioned to my grandmother that my company had sent me on a business trip and put me up in a large hotel suite, and that it was a waste of money — as a very young executive, I was thrilled to be staying in any kind of nice hotel, and a suite was certainly overkill. She nagged me for days to get me to tell my management that the company was wasting money, thinking that it would mark me as a good employee, someone who cared about the company’s money. When I told her there was a chance that it would instead mark me as a troublemaker, she reversed her opinion and nagged me for days until she felt sure I wouldn’t bring this up to management.
And that’s an issue for anyone who works in an organization. You can never be sure exactly what you need to do in order to get a promotion, a raise and recognition from your bosses. You may have a pretty good idea, of course. You know you have to get your work done on time, with high quality, meet your objectives, get along with people, etc. But even if you do all these things, you can’t be sure that management is going to reward you. Perhaps you didn’t flatter your boss enough. Maybe you made a remark that was misinterpreted by a very senior executive, and now you’re seen as a difficult employee. What if an ambitious colleague has quietly been sabotaging your promotion to advance their own career? What if there just happens to be a lot of competition for scarce raises and promotions, and someone else happens to be more talented, or lucky, or more articulate, or more politically astute?
We are taught from an early age that the world is a meritocratic place: The smartest, hardest working, most talented people rise to the top. If that’s true, and you’re not rising as fast as you and your family think you should, well, that “must” be because you’re not so smart, not so hardworking, and not so talented. (Having worked for years with many senior executives, I can assure you the corporate world is not a perfect meritocracy.)
So you are now set up for feeling pretty lousy: in order to feel good about yourself, you need to rise through the ranks in your organization, but no matter what you do, rising through the ranks is not something within your control. And control is something that is very important to the human psyche. Watch any Terrible-Two year old asserting their control, and you can see how hard-wired it is to us. Any situation where we have no control is depressing, infuriating or anxiety provoking: waiting for exam results; being delayed on a flight; looking for a job; going through a divorce; awaiting a doctor’s medical verdict; and of course, aiming for a raise or promotion.
Is there no hope then? Do we all have to resign ourselves to working in organizations where we want rewards, but have limited control over whether we get them? Are depression, anxiety, frustration and helplessness inevitable?
You don’t have to resign yourself to a work life of limited control. It is true you don’t have much control over whether you get rewards, but you do have control over something that is equally, or perhaps more meaningful. The people who are impacted by your work — whether colleagues, customers, vendors, students, patients, etc. — these people know whether you are doing a good job. You have the ability to rush to fulfill their requests, to make them feel important, to enjoy their interaction with you. You can offer a smile, or do something extra for them, show your concern, put in more work to make their life easier. Don’t waste effort trying to win approval and recognition from senior people who don’t really know you. Instead, try to impress those who interact with you most closely. And funnily enough, when you impress the people who know you best, oftentimes recognition from senior levels will follow.
And therein lies one route to a satisfying career. There is great honor in a lifetime of honest work, performed well, with value added to those around you. You will have a sense of control over your destiny, and your life will be filled with people who respect and even admire you, whether you are the most senior or the most junior in the organization.
(If you enjoyed this article you might also want to read "Fear and Loneliness in the Corporate World")