Evan puzzled many of his coworkers at the web services company. Although very friendly and clearly quite smart, Evan didn’t seem to care about getting ahead and moving up to a better-paying position. Several of Evan’s coworkers who had started at the company when he did had been promoted to jobs with more responsibility and bigger salaries. When they urged Evan to try harder, he laughed.

In contrast, consider Selene. She felt her head starting to droop over the spreadsheet she was reading. Shaking her head to clear the drowsiness overwhelming her, she glanced at the time display on her computer monitor. It was after midnight, the third night in a row she’d worked late into the night. She was determined to do her best on this project, one she hoped would get the attention of her company’s founder. They’d passed her over for promotion twice already. Sighing, Selene decided she probably should go get some sleep.

Evan and Selene are very different, but they have one thing in common. Both have different deficiencies with one and the same emotional intelligence competence: achievement orientation. Evan lacks enough drive to achieve and Selene has too much.

A Balanced Drive to Achieve

The achievement orientation competency goes beyond simply having an amped up drive to achieve. When we’re strong in this competency, we strive to meet or exceed an internal standard of excellence we hold ourselves to, and so appreciate metrics for—and feedback on—our performance. We set challenging goals and take calculated risks. AND we can balance our personal drive to achieve with the needs and goals of the organization.

Mindfulness can help to re-orient you towards an appropriate level of achievement—whether for yourself or for the whole organization.

That last point about balance is key, especially for leaders as they progress to higher levels in their organization. My colleague, Richard Boyatzis, and others have conducted research that shows that achievement orientation for personal goals matters crucially in early career jobs, while it morphs into a concern for the team or organization goals at higher levels. Here’s what Richard said about that research in Achievement Orientation: A Primer.

“Very often, if you’re showing too much achievement orientation in a leadership position, you end up inserting yourself into the role instead of inspiring other people around you. We find in the research that achievement motivation helps up to a certain point and then it starts to get in the way. We followed promotions over 20 years and found that achievement motivation predicts promotion to mid-level management up to about year 8, but then predicts the inverse (opposite) for promotion to executive levels.”

How Can Evan and Selene Develop a Balanced Achievement Orientation?

Evan, or anyone who lacks a strong drive to achieve, first needs to recognize the value of achievement for attaining his life goals. What does Evan care about and why would achievement matter to him? Evan may not care much about financial success or status for himself, but perhaps striving toward challenging goals could help him get closer to realizing a vision that he cares about. For example, if Evan is concerned about building community, protecting the environment, or another issue, perhaps reaching a higher level in the company would allow him to work toward those goals. Making more money would certainly let him give more generously to causes he cares about. And being in a more influential position might allow him to direct the company’s charitable giving toward issues that matter to him. Evan’s supervisor or a coach could ask Evan these questions about what matters most to him as a way to help Evan develop a clarity of intention or personal mission, motivating him to achieve more.

A mindful pause combined with deep reflection can help us sense more directly what really matters to us—and follow that vision.

Selene has been so focused on some aspects of her individual achievement at work that she has driven herself in ways that could lead to illness or relationship ruin—two common side effects of too much drive to achieve. One superb tool for developing a more balanced sense of achievement orientation is mindfulness meditation. For Selene, mindfulness would give her a chance to hit the pause button and step back from her strong push to get ahead. She would learn to notice her thoughts and reactions to events around her and to let them go. This could help her develop overall balance in work and life, re-prioritizing sleep or self-care, improving her mood.

In Evan’s case, self-reflection and self-awareness could help him connect with his personal mission and get on a path towards putting more effort into realizing those goals. A mindful pause combined with deep reflection can help us sense more directly what really matters to us—and follow that vision.

Finally, whether in your first years of a career or well into it and in a leadership role, mindfulness can help to re-orient you towards an appropriate level of achievement—whether for yourself or for the whole organization.

Daniel Goleman

Daniel Goleman, twice a Pulitzer prize nominee, is the bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence and Healing Emotions. Goleman lectures frequently to business audiences, professional groups, and on college campuses. A psychologist who for many years reported on the brain and behavioral sciences for The New York Times, Dr. Goleman previously was a visiting faculty member at Harvard. Dr. Goleman’s most recent books are Force for Good: The Dalai Lama's Vision for Our World, The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights, and Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence – Selected Writings.


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