During a meeting with a group of executives, one CEO shared her frustration about an employee who repeatedly failed to get his work done on time. We did some role playing, where the CEO said she would ask the employee what she could do to help him complete a specific task. This, of course, was done with good intentions because everyone wants to offer help.
The CEO’s goal was that she could help the employee this time by making it easy, and, in turn, he would magically learn from the CEO and never miss another deadline. Unfortunately, such good intentions have the propensity to create a culture with the exact opposite of what was intended.
The group challenged the CEO, telling her she was letting the employee off the hook and reinforcing a behavior that undermines a high-performing culture. The best thing to do in this case was to not offer help, the group agreed, but ask the employee what he planned to do to meet the deadline. The CEO began to squirm in her seat as she felt uncomfortable with the idea of not trying to help.
For many leaders, their well-intended desire to help their employees and make it easy winds up limiting:
- The employee’s potential
- The leader’s potential
- The organization’s potential
Colonel Gary E. Payton, a graduate of the US Air Force Academy and former Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs, spoke at the US Air Force Academy Acceptance Day in 2017. In his address, he introduced the concept of Earned Success.
Colonel Payton explained how the US Air Force Academy Basic Training Cadets arrived their first day with a tremendous amount of fear and questions. But gradually, they pushed through and overcame their anxieties and self-doubts. He noted that each of these Basic Cadets completed something that could never be taken away, and they would look back on this experience with great pride—ultimately leading to not only career success, but also personal fulfillment.
As Colonel Payton went on to say, studies have shown that true, sustainable happiness is mostly achieved through some level of Earned Success. This means that someone attempted something they may not have thought they could do, but they persevered and achieved their desired goals, objectives, or outcomes. By succeeding at something that is hard and challenging, that person has achieved some level of success.
This concept of Earned Success is the foundation for sustained motivation in people and in companies. Dr. Arthur C. Brooks, respected economist, social scientist, and author, has done extensive work on Earned Success and how it leads to happiness.
According to Dr. Brooks, Earned Success is the creation of value in our lives or in the lives of others. Earned Success is the motivation for entrepreneurs who seek value through innovation, hard work, and passion. Earned Success is what parents feel when their children do wonderful things, what social innovators feel when they change lives, what artists feel when they create something of beauty.
When leaders, whether consciously or unconsciously, deny their employees the opportunity to pursue something substantial by making it easy or avoiding delegation, they are doing those employees a disservice.
Inside of every person is a desire to achieve something meaningful in their life. This may not be evident in some people, most likely because someone in their life deactivated their motivation by either making it too easy or degrading them. The outcome is similar: a lack of motivation and confidence to complete tasks, projects, and jobs.
Employees are an ocean of untapped potential. By depriving them of their opportunity to achieve Earned Success, leaders stand in the way of their employees’ pursuit of fulfillment. Employees then struggle to keep their motivation above the water line.
When organizational leaders believe and embrace the truth that employees have tremendous potential, and it is the leader’s responsibility to be the spark that activates the potential, employees and leaders realize Earned Success and fulfillment.