Am I Really Making a Difference?
In the past few years, I have increasingly encountered clients who are frustrated by their assumed lack of visible contribution. Often, these individuals previously worked in a way that allowed them to deliver value that could easily be measured, noticed, and recognised. Especially within large corporate organisations today, fewer and fewer roles allow for this concept of complete engagement from a single individual. Companies have become so complex operationally, that it is increasingly difficult to attribute success beyond an individual’s key performance indicators (KPIs). The effect on certain people can be demotivating and can lead to disengagement, boredom, and even to doubting one’s personal capability.
Larger organisations are requiring individuals to perform what can be assumed to be routine responsibilities as the primary function. In other words, what some used to deem as tolerable in the
IN BLACK & WHITE | Mark Holtshousen
light of more exciting projects has become their singular focus. It is possible to feel like a small fish in a large pond, and the swish of one’s tail has little immediate ripple effect.
There is also a sense of powerlessness, as much of what needs to get done is dependent on others over whom one has no authority. Contingencies, delays, dependencies, reprioritisation, headcount freezes, new management, refocused strategic imperatives and cost-cutting all promote a sense that there is little room for movement. The idea of making a difference seems to be less likely all the time. Top talent is feeling like a cog in the big machine. Even chief executives in many instances await the decisions of boards and shareholders, powerless to see through strategies which can make a difference. It is easy and seems justified to give up, sit back, and do time.
There is a dire need for us to recalibrate the mechanisms our personal sense of value and contribution were able to rely on previously. With the luxury of clear and visible difference less accessible and largely out of our control, we need to intentionally seek out and creatively implement ways of finding fulfilment. We have to take personal responsibility for our own sense of worth. Confidence is no longer a guaranteed by-product of great work done. It must be actively sought out.
Here are a few suggestions that will better allow you to manage your contribution value:
1. Recalibrate your contribution
You need to reframe the way you previously thought of delivery, adding value, and achievement. On a number of occasions, clients have expressed their frustration that work that they were asked do, and which required much effort, was not utilised at all. Their recommendations were completely ignored, where, previously, they were able to see the positive effects of their labour roll-out into tangible plans that made a difference. In these cases, personal contribution needs to be recalibrated in terms of the recommendations being the end product, and not the envisioned utilisation of those recommendations.
2. Implement alternative measurements
If being able to see how something has changed as a result of your involvement is important to you, it may be helpful to find new ways of measuring your contribution. While you may no longer have sight of the finished product, recording your input in each process on a document may give you a better sense of how much you have cumulatively accomplished. You may want to copy your boss or team on these by way of a progress report. This will give you a better sense of what you have actually accomplished in terms of what is in your control, regardless of how it is utilised, which may be outside of your control.
3. Create feedback
One of the best measures of adding value is the feedback from others. Take the time to engage and request feedback from others in terms of how valuable your part in the process was. Performance reviews are simply not sufficient; neither are they the most appropriate contexts for this. Large corporations should find ways of eliciting and providing feedback in the best forums to allow employees to get a sense of the difference their contribution is making in the big picture, and how it has been an essential component in the group’s success. Managers and those with a broader view should share how the individual and team’s contribution positively affected the greater outcome.
4. Re-evaluate your context
This is the last option any coach wants to put on the table, but the fact is that some individuals are simply more suited to environments where they can clearly see how things have changed for the better as a result of them being there. These people may be better suited to seek out alternative employment opportunities in smaller or differently operated companies where start-to-end involvement allows for this.
5. Diversify contexts
While it is essential that the primary work environment should allow one to get a sense that one’s competencies are being utilised and that one’s contribution is adding value, it is becoming increasingly frustrating to expect a singular context to sufficiently provide fulfilment. The idea of creating a portfolio life, in which multiple applications of one’s time and energy cumulatively contribute to a gratifying experience, is an emerging and essential one. It would be worthwhile exploring where else your contribution could add value, regardless of financial compensation. It is equally important to identify what other experiences are meaningful and gratifying to you outside of a work context. To place our sole dependency on a singular work context and environment has become unsustainable.
We are the meaning-makers in our own lives, not the organisations for which we work, though it would be in their best interests to do all they can to contribute in an effort to retain top talent.