Manage the impact of achievement drive on leadership effectiveness.
When you think about individuals with the need to achieve, who set challenging goals, raise the bar, improve standards – it all sounds like very desirable behaviour that could do nothing but good for a company’s performance.
In fact, we tend to promote those who exhibit this type of behaviour the most, and we normally give them the biggest bonuses and corporate prizes available to us with the intent of reinforcing the pattern of behaviour. This is very valid for instances when an individual’s job performance is linked to doing everything by themselves and their contribution to the organisation is an ‘individual’ contribution. Most organisations tend to promote these individuals to positions where, unfortunately, the ingredients that made them successful as individual contributors are almost in contradiction to what is needed to perform when the need is actually to deliver through others.
David McClelland, who had a major impact in allowing us to understand human motivation half a decade ago, differentiated between three types of motives which impact our behaviour. He called these the three social motives and labelled them Achievement, Affiliation and Power. Achievement refers to the need for setting high standards and goals, surpassing one’s previous performance and also being better than the ones we believe represent a standard of excellence. Achievement is a need that can easily be fulfilled by oneself and through one’ own actions. It doesn’t require an audience – except for when it comes to providing feedback, recognition and acknowledgement of what has actually being achieved.
So we normally find a group of leaders who have worked their way up the corporate ranks, most probably because of their Achievement need or drive. Their primary need for Achievement has not gone away just because they are now in a leadership position, which makes one think: what is the impact of this need in leadership performance and how does it translate into behaviour?
One of the characteristics of leaders with a high need for Achievement is that they will raise the bar – again and again and again. They can easily lose sight of whether individuals are ready for further change, if the standard is in line with people’s capabilities or just considering – in general – the impact that it has on individuals’ motivation and engagement.
Another way in which the Achievement need can impact behaviour is when people in leadership roles become apprehensive of delegating. Most opportunities for delegating seem more like an opportunity for something to go wrong. Even when there is an attempt at delegating, if the leader even slightly perceives that this will not be done to the highest standard, he or she will jump in and “rescue” the situation. This normally leaves team members with a high degree of uncertainty, wondering what is their accountability and what isn’t – because it seems that their portfolio can and will be interfered with at any given time.
There is also the risk of setting goals and standards that don’t have a close relationship with reality. Unachievable goals, far from motivating people, create a sense of helplessness where it doesn’t matter what one does or not – failure will take place anyway.
Now this is not to say that individuals with a high need for Achievement should never be promoted to leadership positions. Organisations just need to be more conscious of the personal characteristics that have allowed individuals to succeed in their individual contributor roles, and analyse the impact of such traits for the leadership role – both positive consequences and risks for the business.
Individuals in leadership positions don’t need to “lose” their Achievement drive but they need to be clear about their personal and natural desire for going higher, bigger and wider so that they can temper this with a concern for the impact of decisions on people, and ultimately the organisation as a whole.
Organisations would also be able to counter some of these risks if they put specific developmental efforts into allowing people to transition from one role to the next more effectively. Some of the most successful companies allow individual contributors to have a ‘taste’ of what a leadership role entails. This normally means being provided with an assignment where the future leader is expected to manage, coordinate and control other people’s performance. Further to the experience, the individual can reflect how much this is in line with one’s own aspirations, but the future leader can also receive valuable feedback from others to work on any leadership effectiveness gaps before being appointed to a role where it will matter.
When it comes to selecting individuals for leadership roles, the Achievement drive is something to value, but it is important to determine if the individual in question possesses other characteristics that will counter and balance the behaviours associated with a high need for Achievement. For example, is the individual also driven by Affiliation (the need for establishing and maintaining nurturing relationships) or even Power (the need to have an impact and influence in others)? One can also look at what the individual values – how important is it for individuals to perform through and with others? Even when this might not come naturally to them.
So, in the end, it’s about balance. High levels of achievement are needed, but other traits should create a well-balanced performance whereby leaders can demonstrate and adapt the leadership behaviour to what the situation calls for. And organisations can do a lot more to help individuals adapt to their roles more effectively.
Agustina Mendez is the Leadership and Talent Practice Head at Hay Group South Africa, www.haygroup.com/za.
This article appeared in the July 2015 issue of HR Future magazine.