Increased Importance of Challenge

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

At first glance, it’s hard to see anything positive happening as a result of all this institutional downsizing and fundamental change. Yet, every change provides opportunities if it is managed well.

Even in good times, people always become structurally plateaued. And in organizations where promotion was the only thing that defined the winners, plateaued people, who were stuck on the shelf, had to endure a sense of hurt, of significance, of failure….until they retired. That was always a hard place to be. Early plateauing simply adds to the fundamental sense of injury.

Where, then, is the good news? I believe that early plateauing will hasten the development of new values, of a broader cultural definition of so that more people will be able to feel like winners, for the whole of their career. That’s not only humanitarian – it’s also good .

As there is less opportunity for people to become managers, people will have to be professionals. Their source of pride and their sense of significance will lie in making important contribution to the real business. When that is genuinely viewed as “success,” many more people will be able to feel successful for the whole of their career because there is no end to how much you can learn and contribute as a professional. Good times or bad promotions inevitably end – but there is no natural end to challenge.

That kind of change doesn’t just happen. Organizations must make it happen. Reliving the pressure for promotion and the negative emotions that result from early structural plateauing, requires that organizations face up to that issue specifically. This involves an educational program, a new compensation system, and a broader definition of success in the organization’s culture. Being plateaued has to become an honorable state. The executives must lead this transition – they have to articulate the new values, transform their reward structure, and most importantly, create opportunities for different kinds of “winning.”

People are debilitated when they cling to ambitions which are unachievable. Thus, many need to face up to and accept the reality of fewer management positions. Then, they must go on from there. They need to find satisfaction, a sense of succeeding, and a sense of importance, a sense of learning and winning as they move laterally and sometimes even lower to different kinds of tasks; to new challenges. Those who know more and produce more, those who have broader experience and wider perspective, will have to be acknowledged and rewarded just as those who move higher are.

This is a changed emphasis from rewarding those who manage the people who do the actual work to rewarding those who achieve higher skills and greater accomplishments in the actual business of the institution.

While it’s realistically difficult or achieves fundamental changes in complex institutions, in a sense all of this is very simple. The message to organizations is this: You have to increase the number of categories of contributing or the types of career paths, which people can experience as successful. You cannot restrict esteem to the fewer and fewer who will be climbing up the management ladder. You need to have the majority of your people feeling like winners.

Today we are in a transition period where the old values of who is a winner co-exists with the new reality that there are fewer of those people. It is predictable that during the transition phase the old concepts are more powerful than the new values because the new values have a very short history. We didn’t grow up with them.

But, those changes in values will occur. People need to experience themselves as successful. Reality will cause the majority to broaden their concept of success. But it will take time and it will take work because changing out concept of success involves very basic psychological change.

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