Driven to Achieve… Too Much?

Six months into her new role as head of the accounting division for a global transportation company, Sarah was frustrated. She had worked hard to earn her new position and didn’t understand why her boss had just given her a lukewarm review, faulting her leadership skills. She had never received anything but high praise from professors at the university she attended, and as she worked her way up from an entry-level position into increasingly more responsible roles in this company. If there is one thing Sarah knows how to do, it is to set a challenging goal and work hard and smart until she achieves it.

Sarah is someone with a strong drive to achieve. That focus on achieving has served her well… so far. What’s gone wrong?

Too Much Drive to Achieve?

Using the perspective of Emotional Intelligence, what’s gone wrong is that Sarah hasn’t learned how to balance her drive to achieve with other emotional skills. Achievement Orientation is one of twelve competencies in the model of Emotional and Social Intelligence that my colleagues and I have developed. By ‘competency’ I mean a learned and learnable skill that improves workplace performance and that can be observed by others. Like Sarah, someone skilled at the Achievement Orientation Competency strives to meet standards of excellence and continually seeks ways to do things better. However, leaders who demonstrate this competency are also skilled at balancing their personal drive to achieve with a focus on the goals and needs of the organization. That’s where Sarah's performance dropped. She has not been able to translate her desire to excel into effective strategies for leading her division. She doesn’t understand why her new staff doesn’t work harder and why pushing them doesn’t have much impact.

Sarah is a good example of the complexity of Achievement Orientation Competency. On the one hand, her drive to achieve has played a key role in her career success. Research shows that Achievement Orientation predicts success in jobs where there are clear numerical goals and continuous feedback so you can measure how you're doing and change accordingly.

Achievement Orientation is most helpful in early career stages. My mentor David C. McClelland and colleague Richard E. Boyatzis conducted long-term research that shows that a drive to achieve helps up to a certain point and then gets in the way. They followed promotions in a large corporation for 20 years and found that achievement motivation predicts promotion to mid-level management up to about year 8. However, after that, high levels of this orientation predicted the opposite for promotion to executive levels. That strong drive to achieve got in the way of being promoted to higher level leadership positions.

Finding the Right Balance

If you were Sarah's boss or coach, how would you help her translate her Achievement Orientation into a skill that is useful in her role as a leader? If I were Sarah's boss, I’d focus on helping her capitalize on her Achievement Orientation strength by setting new personal goals for building her leadership skills – skills that go beyond being a “doer.” Now that she is in her current position, what are her goals for herself? What are steps she can take to achieve those goals? How can she best lead others towards a bigger vision of progress? And, I’d talk with her about other Emotional Intelligence Competencies that could help, such as Adaptability, Empathy, Influence, Coach and Mentor, and Teamwork. To be effective as a leader, we need to develop a range of skills to handle our own emotions and positively impact the people we lead.

(This blog was originally published on LinkedIn. It has been re-posted here with prior permission from Daniel Goleman.)

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Categories: Leadership

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Daniel Goleman

Daniel Goleman is the Co-Director of Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations....

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