Career Existentialism And Its Affect On Organizations

On my blog I’m constantly encouraging leaders to build and develop their people. It’s an absolute essential to create a positive culture that is engaging and profitable. It positions organizations to become an employer of choice which attracts the top talent during recruiting initiatives. Developing others also minimizes turnover which improves your bottom line and keeps productivity at a maximum. There is, however, a dark side to career development.

Career development is best served when it is symbiotic in nature. When both parties approach the affair with the understanding “This will help me as well as the other party.” Organizations develop people and the person being developed wins because they are gaining valuable skills for their profession. The organization gains a more qualified and capable employee that contributes to its overall objectives. The moment this symbiosis is taken out of balance, it ceases to be effective.

The most common imbalance we think of is when an organization just focuses on achieving its overall objectives. It’s a selfish position that usually fosters a command-and-control leadership style that is riddled with micro-management. Turnover increases, productivity decreases and no one comes out a winner. The other side of this coin gets less air time, but it is equally damaging to an organization. When the employee is solely focused on gaining experience for themselves with little to no regard for the organizational objectives, it negatively impacts the organization as well. It’s what I call career existentialism.

The employee becomes such a professional navel gazer that they can only focus on that which defines and justifies their very existence. We’ve all worked with at least one person like this. It’s like they should be wearing a t-shirt that reads “Welcome to the future. Population = 1.” as if they do life in some bubble. The affects this type of mentality can have on an organization can be dreadful. Morale suffers. Productivity decreases. Turnover increases. Sound familiar? It has the same affect as when the organization is the selfish jerk.

Here are 4 ways to avoid the rise of career existentialism in your organization.

  1. Purposeful language – Make sure you include language in your values that pull away from the development of career existentialism. This can shift the conversation from hair splitting over “preferred” actions to values alignment. Values dictate culture and purposeful language is the best way to reinforce values and culture.
  2. Reward intelligently – Many organizations have some form of rewards and recognition program. Use this as leverage to discourage career existentialist behavior. Tie bonuses to more than just individual performance. Include group dynamics such as teamwork and collaboration. Each organization will be different, but it should be obvious what is negatively affected by the career navel gazer.
  3. Don’t exemplify existentialism – It’s easy to look deep into an organization, but what about leadership? How do things work at the top? If there is constant political jockeying over trivial things as a means to play the alpha role, you’re setting the example to have others do that in your organization. If it creates havoc in the smaller numbers of senior leadership, what impact do you think it will have with larger numbers in the employee ranks?
  4. Address issues quickly – Your accountability structure is your best ally. If you need to re-write some role descriptions to minimize the temptation for people to be career existentialists in your organization, then do so. When people begin to adopt this position, it MUST be addressed right away. If you have properly crafted your values, it becomes much easier to address this problem. Otherwise, it turns into this gray area where there is a tug-of-war around interpretation.
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