What this post is about (and why you should read):
- Gets to the heart of the pressures that influence our definitions of success at work
- Explores why workplace leaders should reimagine how to set employees up for success
- Shares advice from workplace leaders that individuals and people leaders alike can take action on now in their jobs and at their organizations (see key takeaways in each section!)
On the surface, success at work can feel like a fixed destination. It’s the finish line you triumphantly cross when you do things “right” in your career. In reality, there isn’t one finish line that works for everyone—not when we’re all running different marathons, and not if the finish line concept is no longer relevant.
Traditionally, our working world hasn’t left much wiggle room for more nuanced and personalized definitions of success in the workplace. Funneling everybody into the same career path model while not accounting for an individual's ambitions, experiences, and perceptions around what success means is an approach that’s failing employees and organizations. The concept of the finish line doesn’t work because our careers, like our lives, are iterative and a work in progress.
Research from Gartner reveals that 65% of employees are rethinking the role of work in their life. It’s hardly surprising, then, that in the same study 82% say they want their organization to see them as a whole person, not only as an employee. The data paints a clear picture: that the definition of workplace success needs a major makeover. This means less emphasis on comparisons to what others do, measuring up to societal pressure and expectations, or public prestige and more focus on exploring our purpose, meaning, and fulfillment. For employees, what being successful in the workplace translates to is a more personal, collaborative approach to shaping a flexible career path that supports them as the whole human.
So, how do we shake up conventional views of success in the new world of work? And how can we support others to do the same?
Our take: success isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. And that journey looks different for everyone. In a webinar centered on this topic, we connected with four workplace leaders to explore their own journeys in redefining success:
- Aja Smith, Executive Leadership Coach at ThinkHuman
- Lauren Guilbeaux, Head of Growth at ThinkHuman
- Noelle Johnson, Global DEI Strategist and Trainer at Power to Fly
- Kevin Yip, co-founder and President at Blueboard
Based on their own experiences, we’re also offering some actionable advice for employees and managers alike to imagine a new definition of success on your own terms. We share their advice for leaders to create work environments where all employees are set up to succeed.
Best practices from 4 workplace experts on how to redefine success at work.
According to Aflac’s 2022-2023 WorkForces report, 59% of American workers are experiencing at least moderate levels of burnout. They also aren’t getting the support and resources they need from their employers, with 52% of respondents in our own study admitting they believe their employer isn’t doing enough to support employees’ mental health.
That persistent exhaustion and the consistent upheaval of the past few years has sparked a host of buzzwords to try and wrangle this period of discontent and disconnect. Take “quiet quitting,” a term coined for when employees meet minimum expectations but don’t go above and beyond at work (something that Gallup estimates at least 50% of the workforce is now doing). But the term has received criticism for oversimplifying the complex power dynamics between employees and employers, glorifying hustle culture, and shaming people for not overworking and having healthy boundaries between one’s personal life and work.
So what happened? Are employees no longer motivated by the textbook definition of success? It certainly seems that way, with no shortage of headlines about “The Great Resignation”, lackluster employee engagement, and people who left respected and highly compensated careers to pursue paths that might be less traditional but more aligned with their personal values and wellbeing. For Julian Sarafian, a Harvard Law grad who wrote about the decision to leave a coveted position, quitting was a recognition of the outside pressure to perform and the negative health impacts caused by climbing that career ladder. “For much of my life, I worked endlessly to rack up achievements that I thought would make other people respect me more, whether it was being high school valedictorian or interning at the White House or graduating early.”
Almost all of the experts whose redefinitions of success you’ll read about below had a similar catalyst for redefining success: burnout and realizing the many misconceptions around what makes successful people. They all started their careers relentlessly pursuing the vision of success that society sold to them.
But when they reached the finish line, they were surprised that they didn’t achieve the level of satisfaction and happiness they assumed was waiting for them. In fact, most of them found the opposite: more stress and less time for the things they loved.
Those experiences forced them to do some self-reflection, take a hard look at their preconceived notions of success, and start their own journeys of coming up with work lives that felt more personally relevant to them.
Below, you’ll find their insights and experiences, as well as lessons and initiatives that business leaders can take to redefine success for themselves—and to show up for their employees and help them to do the same.
Your first career love might not be forever, and that’s okay: Insights from Aja Smith, Executive Leadership Coach at ThinkHuman.
There’s a saying that if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life. However, while pursuing a passion improves your psychological well-being, it’s not always as straightforward as doing something you love and riding off into the sunset with a forever career. Research on employee tenure shows that the average time a person spends at a job is decreasing, currently at 4.1 years, though that tenure number goes up the older the generation. While generational and demographic differences matter, the paradigm shift in the employee/employer relationship goes beyond short term trends like millennial job hopping. The pandemic forced a long overdue reckoning with how we spend our working lives. People aren’t staying in roles that don’t serve them anymore and are bucking the job-hopping taboo. Or, they might just want to pivot and try something new, which can be daunting when traditional career paths and job descriptions have specific experience and other requirements.
When you dedicate your life to studying something, or pursuing a specific industry, acknowledging that it’s not working (or that you and your needs have changed) is a complex, and emotional, realization. With a passion for education, Aja Smith assumed that a career in higher ed would be the right match. But her role came with a lot of emphasis on what was best for the institution—which wasn’t necessarily aligned with her own values.
Feeling extra pressure as a woman of color who wanted to set an example for her community, Aja attempted to stick with it. “Diving into my work and my performance is how I show that I care,” she explains. That disconnect eventually led to burnout, even causing her to quite literally become sick.
It’s that experience that served as her launch pad for redefining success, focusing on the inside out, genuine joy, and contribution. That led to her current career: coaching. It’s a path that still fuels her love of education, but in a different format than what others thought she “should” pursue.
Aja admits getting to this point was an uneasy experience, albeit a necessary one.
“Be open to discomfort, try new things, and rest—which might also be uncomfortable for people who really do see that hamster wheel as what success is for them.”
And she reminds others that success isn’t stagnant. Your definition could and probably will evolve as you move forward, and leaders and employers need to foster workplaces that not only embrace employees’ current views of success, but future ones too.
In doing so, you might find that the word “success” won’t even fit as the be-all and end-all of what certain employees want to achieve. If you want to be truly open and inclusive of all approaches, experiences, and viewpoints, then maybe you don’t need to use that specific word at all.
TL;DR key takeaway: Your life experience impacts how you see success and that can evolve over time.
What success looks like now could and probably will change numerous times as you move through your career and your life. Remind yourself that’s not only acceptable—it’s growth.
TL;DR for people managers: Recognize that employees’ own career desires will evolve just like yours.
Check in regularly (at least annually) to understand what their needs and ambitions are moving forward. Simply asking, “What does ‘success’ mean for you right now?” can give you an accurate understanding of their current vision.
Your job is what you do, not who you are: Insights from Lauren Guilbeaux, Head of Growth at ThinkHuman.
For Lauren, the struggle with success in the workplace came from having so much of her identity wrapped up in her career. She started her career in sales, a field that’s ripe with competition and career comparison. Plus, being on the revenue side of the business meant that she quite literally had a number attached to her. In Lauren’s eyes, that number represented her own personal value and self-worth.
It’s a common struggle, with data from Pew Research Center stating that 51% of employed Americans get a sense of identity from their job.
Yet, Lauren says that detaching your sense of worth from your job is crucial. Your career is what you do—it’s not who you are. And looking at your occupation as your sole source of fulfillment, purpose, and identity can have a negative impact on your mental well-being.
An article by Arthur Brooks for The Atlantic backs that up, stating, “Reducing yourself to any single characteristic, whether it be your title or your job performance, is a deeply damaging act.” In fact,the author refers to it as self-objectification.
So Lauren worked hard to untangle her career from her identity. “It’s hard to let go of what you think you’re supposed to be. And what society told you to be,” she admits.
Her process of redefining success involved a huge amount of self-reflection and experimentation to understand what was truly important to her—and that’s something she now recommends to anybody who’s eager to come up with a more authentic definition of the word. “Take some time for yourself if you don’t have a good definition of what success is,” she says. “Block off distractions. Write. Do some self-work. See what’s there.”
In terms of what that self-work and reflection can look like, Brooks’ ideas in the same Atlantic article noted above offers some useful questions to ask yourself to get some clarity on if self-objectification is showing up in your job or career:
- Is your job the biggest part of your identity? Is it the way you introduce yourself, or even understand yourself?
- Do you find yourself sacrificing love relationships for work? Have you forgone a relationship, friendship, or starting a family because of your career?
- Do you have trouble imagining being happy if you were to lose your job or career? Does the idea of losing it feel a little like death to you?
TL;DR key takeaway: Constantly allow yourself new experiences—opportunities to grow, test, and try.
Build in reflection time to check in with yourself and hedge against self-objectification by creating and consistently re-evaluating work-life boundaries.
TL;DR for people managers: Offer the same level of exploration to your employees.
Your goal is to help them find what lights them up and then support them to go in that direction.