By Frank J. Rich
The glory in achievement may have no rival. Its consummate joy is the font of self-esteem, the carrot of all vision statements, and America’s corporate pro patria. The energy in this driving force has fueled great acts, great companies, and great nations. Few things measure significance more than the accomplishments of a manager on the move, machine-like in his fluid drive toward results. Yet, despite its winsome genes, achievement has a dark side.
Years of assessing executive behavior have revealed an obverse side, a counterpart that over time threatens performance. The virtues of drive and determination notwithstanding, overachieving leaders may have hit a wall of diminishing returns, counterbalancing in their wake of fury a faulty motive. The inexorable focus on “doing” the work of goals and tasks, targets and revenue growth, can actually retard performance over time. How? Simply by a misplaced motive or goals obsession. The result is misguided use of control and coercion, rather than empowerment through collaboration and coaching. The measure of it is lost productivity.
According to the McClelland Center for Research and Innovation, “too intense a focus on achievement can demolish trust and undermine morale, measurably reducing workplace productivity and eroding confidence in management, both inside and outside the corporation.” Clearly, trust in the executive suites of America’s companies has borne out this conclusion. None could deny the fallout from the debacle that was Enron, and the remaking of governance law and practice over the past 10 years.
So, what does the dark side look like in the halls and conference rooms of the companies we work in?
Consider Nina, a talented vice president of manufacturing and heir apparent to the CEO. Visibly driven by goals, she found it more effective to make quick moves on sticky issues without communicating crucial information or updating team members pointed in a different direction. When confronted, she often turned mean-spirited, faulting others for their lack of drive, “the lean and mean cunning of survivors in the battlefield,” she’d say. Her manner was often sour, which was the flavor that opinions of her took on.
Discontentment turned into mistrust and poor performance, putting at risk the very goals that fueled her overachievement drive. Though uniquely capable of reducing the manufacturing cost base (to improve the company’s competitive advantage), her effect on teams was marginalized by her insensitivity to people.
Nina was relieved of her teams, and given an inside consultant’s role that focused her talent for manufacturing control on numbers, not people.
Motive Is at Issue
In a career of studying motivation and its effect on leadership, David McClelland, Harvard psychologist, presented three primary motivations to explain the behavior of leaders – achievement, affiliation, and power. Referring to them as “social motives,” he suggested that each had a unique influence on behavior.
Achievement, which he described as “meeting or exceeding a standard of excellence or personal performance,” invoked a “need” to do just that, a “desire” to go beyond self-imposed standards, and the demonstrated “behavior” of a micromanager – self absorbed, impatient with poor performers, bereft of positive feedback and direction to others, and obsessed with goals.
The second social motive, affiliation, invoked a “need” for close personal relationships, a “desire” to belong and to participate in group activities, and “behavior” that avoided confrontation and negative feedback, focusing more on people and harmony than on performance.
Power, the third motivator in McClelland’s model, fed on influencing others. Its first part, “personalized power,” draws strength from controlling others and rendering them weak. The second part, “socialized power,” shows the leader’s strength coming from empowering others. His studies concluded that the best leaders are highly motivated by “socialized power,” where “personalized power” is most often associated with exploitation of subordinates.
Leadership style is also at play in the model that produces the greatest long-term results, according to Roper Center studies and continuing empirical studies at IBM and elsewhere. Managers employing a strong “achievement” motive and a strong “pacesetting” style tended to create “neutral or de-motivating” work climates. Those who employed a balanced motivational profile among the three (achievement, affiliation, and power), and “visionary,” “affiliative,” “participative,” and “coaching” leadership styles, tended to create strong or energizing work climates.
Great achievers, it would appear, derive results from a “coaching” style and a balanced motive. Today’s knowledge worker is better equipped to take initiative, employ available resources, and inform decisions with comprehensive data. An effective leader must employ tools that will take full advantage of this new model employee, empowering individual ability toward agreed-upon results. Toward this end, the coaching style is proving most effective at reaching long-term results while keeping achievement from going over to the dark side.