Has achievement among executives run amok?

THERE HAS been a dramatic rise in the achievement drive of business executives, which if unchecked can prove harmful not only to their own careers, but also to the organisations they lead

THERE HAS been a dramatic rise in the achievement drive of business executives which, if unchecked, can prove harmful not only to their own careers but also to the organisations they lead.

A recent Hay Group study found that the achievement motive – the innate drive to continually improve performance or meet or exceed a standard of excellence – has risen sharply among executives over the past decade.

This dramatic rise has coincided with a period of innovation and rapid business growth – a period also marked by scandal and loss of confidence in big business, according to the study’s authors.

They noted that overachievement often results in ineffective, sometimes unethical leadership, and pointed to Enron’s Jeff Skilling as a classic (albeit extreme) case of the organisational overachiever who was driven to continually improve results, no matter how they were accomplished.

“Achievement has long been an important ingredient in the recipe for individual, organisational, even national success,” said Scott Spreier, co-author of the study.

“And in today’s uber-competitive environment, it is fast becoming the performance enhancer of choice as more organisations hire, promote and reward achievement-driven leaders.”

But, as with most stimulants, Spreier said it’s easy to overdose on achievement. “Be careful what you ask for. It can backfire big time. We’ve seen highly ethical, well-meaning executives transformed into vicious louts who behave very badly,” he said.

“They focus on the end to the exclusion of the means and become coercive and demanding, destroying morale and motivation. The really hard cases cut corners, lie, even cheat, all in the name of outstanding results.”

So what can executives and organisations do to avoid this dark side of achievement? The key is becoming aware of how easily our achievement drive can become aroused, and then learning how to better manage it.

“The most effective executives acknowledge their strong need for achievement and its importance in driving organisational performance,”said co-author Mary Fontaine, director of Hay Group’s McClelland Center for Research and Innovation, which conducted the study.

But such executives also recognise that their own drive can often diminish their impact as leaders. Therefore they adopt styles of leadership that more effectively drive performance through others.

“The best leaders aren’t out there blindly setting a blistering pace themselves and demanding the same from others,” Fontaine said.

“Instead they take a step back, create the vision, set the direction and standards, and then coach and engage others. In the process, they create energising work climates in which people feel they have the flexibility, autonomy and clarity they need to continually perform at the top of their game.”

Given the competitive mindset in business today, however, such an approach is sometimes hard, even for savvy, self-aware managers.

Although they know they should be channelling their achievement drive through others – collaborating and coaching – they lose control in the heat of battle and become coercive and controlling.

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