Are Workers Less Interested in Achieving High Performance?

Houston, we have a problem. Or do we?

At first blush, many leaders may find the following research troubling. But is the different employee focus that’s emerging actually a problem, or just “different?”

As the War for Talent rages – presumably to attract and retain the most skilled and highly motivated employees to help our organizations meet their performance goals – the findings of a new global survey by Right Management indicates an ongoing disconnect between employee aspirations and the performance demands of employers worldwide.

Defining just what is career success

Leaders are tasked with helping their companies to innovate, to grow, to groom high potential successors, and to gain a differentiated competitive advantage in the marketplace. These goals are frequently rooted in an organizational culture that appreciates and rewards productivity and high performance to gain those advantages.

But only 10 percent of employees in the survey defined career success as “high performance and productivity.”

Right Management’s survey highlighted how employees defined career success and what they expected at work, and found that 45 percent of respondents ranked work-life as their No. 1 career aspiration (which is more than double the number of employees that ranked being the best at what they do as their top career aspiration) and the top definition of workplace success was “enjoyment/happiness.”

A significant disconnect indeed. But perhaps not one that should surprise us.

Survey findings align with Millennial preferences

Although employees of every generation ranked work-life balance higher than performance, Millennials were the least likely to aspire to be the best at what they do as their main goal. Given that Millennials currently make up almost 50 percent of the global workforce (and are slated to grow to 75 percent of the workforce in the next 15 years) it’s not surprising that their influence is beginning to be felt.

Known for being ambitious, optimistic, civic-minded multi-taskers, Millennials crave meaningful, challenging work that makes a difference in the world. They most definitely want to succeed, but consistent with the survey findings, their definition of success is often significantly different from their colleagues.

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Millennials believe businesses should help resolve social issues and not just measure success in strictly financial terms. They value authenticity, strong business ethics and collaborative relationships of mutual respect. And yes, they want work-life balance because work is just one of many activities to which they are deeply committed.

Leaders and colleagues need to show respect

While Millennials may be more vocal about being respected for the work they do, 53 percent of the surveyed employees said respect for their knowledge and experience was their top expectation of leadership. Other important expectations included:

  • Mutual trust;
  • Transparency;
  • Learning and development; and,
  • A relationship of equals regardless of job title.

In North America, “respect for my knowledge” ranked as the No. 1 expectation of workplace colleagues.

We need to understand employee motivations

While leaders may have hoped for an overwhelming commitment to high performance, it’s important to note that the resulting emphasis on work-life balance doesn’t prevent having an engaged, productive, profitable workforce. In fact, it may enhance it. Understanding employees’ career motivations and aspirations are key to creating a high-performance culture that motivates individuals to do their best work.

How can you use these survey findings to optimize your organizational culture and performance?

The post originally appeared in a somewhat different form on

Named as one of the Ten Best and Brightest Women in the incentive industry and to the Employee Engagement Power 100 list, a Change Maker, Top Idea Maven, and President’s Award winner, Michelle is a highly accomplished international speaker, author, and strategist on performance improvement. A respected authority on leadership, workplace culture, talent and employee engagement, she’s a trusted advisor to many of the world’s most successful organizations and the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States.

Michelle speaks and writes about what she knows first-hand – as a former executive of a Fortune 100 global conglomerate, and as a researcher and strategist. She passionately shares new insights and tools for leaders to confidently, effectively and strategically lead their organizations to success.

Michelle is the Past President of the FORUM for People Performance at Northwestern University and President Emeritus of the Incentive Marketing Association. Michelle was the Founder and Chair of the Editorial Board of Return on Performance Magazine, and has been featured on Fox Television, the BBC, in Fortune, Business Week, Inc. and other global publications, and contributed to the books Bull Market by Seth Godin, Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk, and Social Media Isn’t Social.   




2 Comments on “Are Workers Less Interested in Achieving High Performance?

  1. The thing that stands out to me in this research is people’s desire to work for a company that shows “respect for my knowledge”. That reminds me of the Gallup engagement survey questions “to have the opportunity to do what I do best every day” and “at work do my opinions seem to count”.

    If we define a “high performance work environment” as an environment that fully leverages employee capabilities to make an impact then I’d suggest that this article suggests that employees do want to be high performers. But they define high performance as being more than just doing what you are told. It comes from a partnership between employees and companies that actively balances:
    a. What the company needs to do from a business perspective
    b. What employees want to do from a career perspective
    c. What employees can do based on their personal capabilities and the resources they are given by the organization.

    Increasingly work is not about “me working for you” in a transactional manner, it is about “us forming a partnership” to support our mutual interests. This requires an active two-way dialogue between employees and companies, which many companies struggle to maintain.

  2. Agree with Steven. Appears similar to the Senge (Fifth Discipline) work toward revealing personal vision in form of performance aligned with organization’s vision. Those skilled at navigating that conversation with employees of any demographic should see success.

  3. This is really about achieving a fit – between what organizations need (high performance), and what the employee wants (work-life balance, from what you said above).

    Appreciation happens on performance. Compromise on performance and get down to find who praises ya! As for work-life balance, there is a wonderful video on work-life balance, I totally believe this.

    All of these are tied together, and the challenge in HR is to maintain the balance.

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