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Employee Productivity, Ambition, and Motivation

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A feature in Time Magazine posed a powerful, and perhaps dangerous theory about ambition. The article implied that perhaps some people are just more likely to succeed.

The full article is worth a read, but these four paragraphs were particularly noteworthy:

But a yearning for supremacy can create its own set of problems. Heart attacks, ulcers and other stress-related ills are more common among high achievers — and that includes nonhuman achievers. The blood of alpha wolves routinely shows elevated levels of cortisol, the same stress hormone that is found in anxious humans. Alpha chimps even suffer ulcers and occasional heart attacks.

For these reasons, people and animals who have an appetite for becoming an alpha often settle contentedly into life as a beta. “The desire to be in a high position is universal,” says de Waal. “But that trait has co-evolved with another skill–the skill to make the best of lower positions.”

Humans not only make peace with their beta roles but they also make money from them. Among corporations, an increasingly well-rewarded portion of the workforce is made up of B players, managers and professionals somewhere below the top tier. They don’t do the power lunching and ribbon cutting but instead perform the highly skilled, everyday work of making the company run. As skeptical shareholders look ever more askance at overpaid corporate A-listers, the B players are becoming more highly valued. It’s an adaptation that serves the needs of both the corporation and the culture around it. “Everyone has ambition,” says Lowe. “Societies have to provide alternative ways for people to achieve.”

Ultimately, it’s that very flexibility — that multiplicity of possible rewards — that makes dreaming big dreams and pursuing big goals worth all the bother. Ambition is an expensive impulse, one that requires an enormous investment of emotional capital. Like any investment, it can pay off in countless different kinds of coin. The trick, as any good speculator will tell you, is recognizing the riches when they come your way.

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© Flickr user tec_estromberg

It’s possible to be productive and satisfied without being at the top. Every team needs a quarterback, certainly, but they also need specialized players in all of the positions. All jobs are important. The question is whether or not the people in those jobs are empowered to do the work that job deserves.

In some organizations, employees are simply told what to do and expected to go do it. There aren’t any questions asked, and there isn’t any real input outside of that initial instruction. In other, more successful organizations, employees are allowed to, and even encouraged to, go about their work, review the processes in place, and present suggestions that will be heard and seriously considered. That’s how so many of the best companies in the world today reached their current status: someone at the top empowered the employees beneath them and was able to set their ego aside in realizing that they may not have all the very best ideas.

At AccelaWork, we don’t really want to meet owners of companies to talk about productivity and workflow. That might sound counterintuitive, because the usual thought is that organizations become more effective from the top down. In reality, it is the everyday, mid-level and front-line employees which have the most impact on efficiency and effectiveness. The people doing the work are the people we want to meet.

If you recognize the opportunity to make improvements at your company or non-profit, consider reaching out to AccelaWork.  We’d love to support your ambition by speaking to your team on a topic of your choice. Contact our Indianapolis consulting firm today!

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