Success – at What Price?

Today’s most successful companies recognize the currencies that drive high performing, employees to achieve organizational goals. Employee engagement is not a cost of success, it’s essential to it.

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 eventually people will notice. The perception is that the hardest workers are in the “performance zone” where the energy is high and the returns are great.

Hard work is the price we must pay for success. You can accomplish anything if you’re willing to pay the price.

—Vince Lombardi

The cultural controversy at Amazon is a great example of the “pedal harder and faster” mantra. The 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.”

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.

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 the impact of a healthy culture that prioritizes both personal and professional satisfaction at all levels of the org chart.  In surveys conducted by SHRM over the last few years, respectful treatment of all employees and trust between employees both rated higher than benefits, compensation, and job security.

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 out there, and they inspire, teach, and learn from one another.

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, but they also 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. Culture is not a tag line written in a manifesto. Culture is the atmosphere that is defined by what people do and how they feel about what they do. Companies can be profitable and care about the people who help generate those profits. When they do both, they actually increase the capacity to contribute to both personal satisfaction and organizational goals.

Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.

-Simon Sinek

Leaders who foster a culture of respect, learning, and individual contribution recognize that there are currencies beyond salary and the corner office.  They 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 of 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.


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. “Culture is not a tag line written in a manifesto. Culture is the atmosphere that is defined by what people do and how they feel about what they do.” BOOM! You nailed it!

    I would only add: “And for whom they do it; for those they seek to serve.”

    Companies often describe their manifesto as a reflection of who they want to be, e.g., world class, the best, premier, first to market. A company’s manifestos should be a reflection of its promise – the outcomes and impacts it wants to have on behalf of those it serves. As you so beautifully point out, Melissa, “People love their jobs because they feel like their contributions matter.” And there are two reflections of those contributions: (1) managers need to continuously and meaningful reinforce employee contributions, but I believe those contributions have to (2) reflect who the work ultimately benefits – the client, the customer, the user. If they don’t, why are we doing what we’re doing?

    I’m going to use your article in an upcoming workshop. Thank you!

  2. Thank you for some great insights Melissa and you posed a very interesting question, “What is the price of success?”

    It is rather difficult to quantify “price” for it will differ from person to person and position to position, culture to culture etc. Every living soul has his/her own definition of what success and what it means to them.

    The true meaning of success goes far beyond the common definitions of success, such as having a lot of money, being wealthy, having a lot of tangibles and earned degrees. Quite the opposite: true success in life cannot be measured with the above-named factors, but instead with the amount of people that are able to live a better and more advanced life because of what you created. This is perhaps a good meaning of success.

    Do what is right.

    Action is the foundational key to all success. ~ Pablo Picasso

    Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other. ~ Abraham Lincoln

    Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment. ~ Jim Rohn

    • You’re so right, Jonathan, that the measure of success is an individual thing as well as having cultural influences. I love how you captured it here: “…true success in life cannot be measured with the above-named factors, but instead with the amount of people that are able to live a better and more advanced life because of what you created.” Well said!

  3. Absolutely love the points you make in this article Melissa! I found my mind drifting back to situations over my career where I have been in each of the mindsets you describe. Sometimes being the creative thinker who is being squashed, and other times holding back growth with the fear of not wanting rock the boat. And even the days when I could not be open to the ideas that others might bring to the table. This was a great read for me to both reflect on my journey and the styles in which I have managed and been managed, but also in how I approach the time and energy I put into the levels of success I now seek in my own business.