The Reality about What Really Matters at Work

Business ResultsComplete this sentence: In business, the only thing that really matters is _______.

The answer to this entrenched belief is so obvious that at a recent speaking engagement, I had over 300 people spontaneously fill-in-the blank by yelling in unison, “Results!”

I then asked them to consider the affect this tyranny of results has on the workplace. It was not easy. Leaders tend to tune out as soon as you mess with results. Executives cannot imagine what else matters at the end of the day, but results.

As it turns out, the science of motivation is shedding light on the high price being paid for blind allegiance to results and leaving alternate opportunities unexplored, unmined, and under-appreciated.

Consideration #1: Redefine and reframe results.

If you are like most leaders, you define results in terms of quantifiable goals and specific outcomes expressed through ROI, net profit, financial gain, labor hours, reduced costs, lower turnover, productivity measures, and other dashboard metrics. Reasonable, but here is the irony: Your persistent focus on driving for results without emotional meaning may be creating the psychological distress, tension, and pressure that undermines achievement and makes it less likely you get the results that you—and those you lead—are seeking.

If you ask managers what matters at work, they will point to results such as achieving high standards on goals, making numbers, reducing production times, increasing output, and eliminating waste. Ask individuals what matters at work and you get a different response. Yes, people want to achieve those goals (when they are fair and agreed upon), but more important than a quantifiable goal is a meaningful one. Research concurs—in the end, it is the quality of the goal being achieved, rather than the quantity of something being achieved, that matters most.

Leaders and individuals need to learn how to frame results differently and trust that they will achieve organizational metrics.

When I was an itinerant speaker for the world’s largest public seminar company conducting over 100 day-long events a year—each one in a different city, state, or country—I appreciated the work, but I was literally bone weary. The company had a hard metric that meant termination of your contract if not met: Collect 75% or more of participant evaluations (typically 200) and score a 4.5 or better on a 5-point scale.

Those goals made me feel even more exhausted! If I had focused on meeting them, I would have burned out and then quit—as many of my colleagues did. Instead, I reframed the goal in ways meaningful to me. I will remember at least 20 people’s names and something about them by the end of each day. If at least one person tells me I made a difference in their life, then it was a good day.  (After all, that was why I was doing what I was doing.) By reframing what results looked like to me, I was energized—and consistently achieved the organization’s measures of success.

Results matter. But the way results are defined, framed, and achieved, matter more.

Consideration #2: Ends do not justify the means.

If we believe that results are what really matter without consideration as to why those results are meaningful and how people go about achieving them, we are in essence saying the ends justify the means. What a sorry picture this paints. We do not need the science of motivation to prove that means matter as much, or more, than the ends—we see the scandals and horror stories of people, organizations, industries, and countries who prize ends over means every day in the news.

However, we tend to overlook the obvious in day-to-day practice. The evidence is clear that even if people achieve the results you want, they are less likely to sustain or repeat those results if their basic psychological needs are thwarted in the process. You may experience short-term gains when you have a results focus, however, those gains are at risk and compromised when people feel pressure instead of autonomy, disconnection instead of relatedness, and “used” without a sense of the competence they have gained.

Try this for the next month: Reframe the belief that the only thing that matters is results. Consider this belief instead:

In the end, what really matters is not just results, but why and how those results are achieved.

Observe the shift in energy when you focus on what really matters in the workplace—achieving meaningful results that are also psychologically fulfilling. Then trust the numbers will add up.

About the author:

Susan Fowler is one of the principal authors—together with David Facer and Drea Zigarmi—of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ new Optimal Motivation process and workshop. Their posts appear on the first and third Monday of each month.

Editor’s note: This post is the fourth in a five part series on beliefs that erode workplace motivation. You can read Susan’s first three posts in the series by clicking on Rethinking Five Beliefs that Erode Workplace Motivation , Five Beliefs that Erode Workplace Motivation, Part Two , and  If You Are Holding People Accountable, Something Is Wrong.

13 thoughts on “The Reality about What Really Matters at Work

  1. That’s a really thought provoking way to think about goals. We’re having a business planning event later in the month and I think I’m going to get team members to reframe our service goals into something that makes sense for them. Thanks for the great idea.

  2. Thank you Susan – You express something so well which I have known for many years – “Results” are just a result of action. They are a symptom of a process. All processes are in turn the combined effects of individual actions of people. And as we know people are very emotional beings. The fuel for results comes from understanding that people only work well when they are concentrating and they concentrate when they are motivated and they are motivated when they feel good about themselves. They only feel good about themselves if they feel their views and input is valued. In other words that they matter.

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  7. Some wonderful quotes by women that I thought would be of interest to you. Reminded me that I believe that if we could elect and/or promote more women to leadership positions in this country we would have a more just, humane, collaborative, healthy and happy society. Let’s all work on that. Sending love, Don/Dad/Bapa/Grandpa Don

    • Dear Don, I am so grateful for men such as you, Drea, Laurie, Ken, and others I have been fortunate to learn from over the years, who are strong enough not to be threatened by smart women or minorities–indeed you appreciate wisdom where you find it. Your love of learning and quest to understand the world at a higher level don’t make you “elite,” but evolved. Much love, Susan

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