Image: The Tortoise and the Hare, illustration by Jean Grandville, from the 1855 edition of La Fontaine's Fables
Two kinds of employees have been challenging me lately. The first, mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings, want to be promoted within what feels like 15 minutes of arriving. The second is the set of highly competent and reliable people who respond to the question, "So, what's next for you?," with obvious discomfort and not the slightest hint of energy or excitement.
The first group tends to annoy me, while the second has pushed my buttons in ways that I have struggled to understand. "How can he not want a promotion?," I have expressed in exasperation. "Given her talents, why wouldn't she want to lead the whole group?" Because I am always ready for the next thing, I find myself baffled by people who are not.
In talking with the "I’m happy doing what I’m doing” people, it's become clear that they are not afraid of responsibility or lacking drive, it's just that their priorities are not exclusively related to getting ahead. In some cases, they like their jobs just fine, but they treasure their families, never want to miss their 5:30 p.m. yoga class, enjoy doing volunteer work in the evenings, or simply want the ability to clock out at the end of the day to do whatever they want. In other cases, they are really, really good at what they are doing now. They enjoy being recognized as go-to people and relish the sense of mastery that comes with that reputation.
Because the universe has a funny way of giving us exactly what we need when we need it, my end-of-the-semester file purge turned up a September 2008 copy of a newsletter from the Harvard Business School that I had saved, but not read closely. In “Managing Your Solid Citizens,” (not available online) Anne Field cautions against building organizations filled entirely with hard-driving, always-pursuing-the-next-promotion people because they tend to be more interested in building their résumés rather than building their organizations. She quotes Harvard University’s Thomas J. DeLong, who three years later wrote an essay for the Harvard Business Review called “Stop Ignoring the Stalwart Worker.” He encourages us to stop pushing solid-citizen employees into roles they don’t want. DeLong asks us to consider that promotion is not the only road to recognition in the workplace and notes that while some people have a desire for power, status, and ever-more money, others are more motivated by autonomy, creative expression, the opportunity to develop special expertise, and the ability to influence others.
I’ve thought a lot about those two articles lately and I find myself with a heightened appreciation for the solid citizens in my own organization. They are people I can trust to deliver on their promises, they don’t suck up all the air in meetings, they are usually last in line to demand additional resources, and they don’t take huge risks in order to make a name for themselves. In short, they make life easier.
Given that, I’m going to replace, “So, what’s next for you?,” with “What do we need to do to keep you engaged and energized?” I think it’s a much better question.