The Dark Side of Achievement Orientation


We are an achievement-oriented society. In many cases, it’s how we measure success, growth, and overall status. It can propel us toward advancement and be the impetus for needed changes in our lives. As leaders, we employ that drive to achieve in our efforts to bring the best out of our employees. As employees, we use it on our journey to becoming leaders. But that orientation is not without a dark side.

Often, that drive to achieve negatively impacts our psyche. For example, we often compare ourselves to others, our achievements to theirs, and our self-esteem fluctuates with – or is driven by – those comparisons. And certainly many of us know what it’s like to have children under so much academic pressure in school that anything less than an A is unacceptable.

Achievement orientation is an area covered in Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence (EI) model, which utilizes four different quotients – Self Awareness, Self Management, Social Awareness and Relationship Management – to help individuals understand their strengths and challenge areas in Emotional Intelligence. Using the Emotional Competence Inventory assessment, I have consistently scored lowest – meaning the area for me to potentially improve the most – in Achievement Orientation, a section of the Self Management quotient. And I am very aware as to why, which is the point of this blog.

I believe I score low on that portion of the assessment because I am too enmeshed in the matrix of achievement. Fish notice water last, as the saying goes, and in this scenario, I am the fish and achievement orientation, the water. I’ve needed to become aware of my drive to achieve and of the fine line that separates the light side – the positive side – from the dark side of that drive.

And of course there is a light side. The Achievement Orientation competency in Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence Inventory is defined as striving to improve or meeting a standard of excellence. This competency is required to succeed, as well as to commit to self-development, growth and innovation. To varying degrees, most people desire achievements, and that desire drives forward movement. We are all motivated differently, obviously; however, in Emergent’s work with leaders and teams, we find that objectives, outcomes or achievements are nearly always a focus.

As an example, a colleague recently shared that she sees a trend in her community of stores and retailers focusing on greed over profit. Her community is financially diverse with many visitors who tend to shop. Many might frame the community as a “tourist town,” despite a very robust local population that remains all year through. As an example, she shared that a boutique women’s fashion shop charges $300 for a sweater that can be found online for $40, which she perceives as “greed over profit.” She argued that a large part of the local (year-round) population could never afford such prices, and that perhaps overcharging visitors isn’t a sustainable plan.

After hearing this story, I made a connection to another I recently heard about an executive leader of an organization who focused on financial results over the fact that he had 3 times the employee turnover compared to the rest of his industry. When this leader was presented with improvement ideas to reduce turnover, he held up the financial results as the lens through which decisions would be made.

In both scenarios, the achievement orientation seemed somehow distorted. While both cases demonstrated achievement, the question arose of “At what cost?” Hedging on the side of underachievement is probably not the answer; however, relying on our self and social awareness is key. If you’re a leader, consider asking yourself these questions when pondering how to move forward with goals and objectives for teams and individuals in your organization:

Is my positive outlook realistic for the objective and people involved?

Leaders may not be communicating enough for teams and individuals to be fully informed. As humans, our negative bias kicks in when there’s a lack of information. Clear and complete communication can and will save the day!

Am I being flexible and adaptable?

Adaptability allows other possibilities to be heard and experimented with. Inviting more voices to the conversation will beget participation and may result in better outcomes. If you can answer this question with two or more examples of how you might move forward with the team, then there’s a good chance you’re being adaptable.

Am I taking the opportunity to coach and mentor others along the way?

Leaders grow leaders. When we do so, we have the opportunity to scale our own leadership as well as the leadership of individuals, teams and the organization. This alone could be your most important professional achievement of all!

For a deeper dive into Emotional Intelligence, leadership and team development, reach out to me or one of my brilliant partners at Emergent.


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