Why working hard at your job doesn’t pay off


Have you ever felt your hard work isn’t appreciated by your company?

You spend more time at work than anyone else but it seems everyone is getting promoted except you.

This week, my department is letting 2 staff go. It wasn’t a cost cut-back.

Upper management thinks they underperformed.

The rest of the team is pretty angry as the two of them were actually great performers.

In fact, their project had generated the most savings in the department.

So what’s the explanation here?

They’re missing the 2nd part of being a top performer.

Not all effort is equal

We already know that not all effort is equal. Top performance spend most of their effort on high leverage activities. These activities are the ones that will get you the most results when pursued. If you spend time working on the wrong things, hard work alone won’t get you anywhere.

I’m a 9-6 employee like you. And I know it can be hard to quantify why other people are top performers. For a long time, I never understood why I wasn’t hitting the top performance bracket. So I wanted to find what it was that a company uses to evaluate top performers.  It’s different for every company and position and it might not be what you think.

It might not be what you think

Cal Newport in 2013, conducted an experiment on what matters and what doesn’t in achieving tenure. He had just joined the faculty at Georgetown and wanted to know how people excelled in academia.

His experiment had a clear result: paper citations rule all.

Before the experiment, he thought that the quantity of publications you were featured in and the originality of the problems you studied were important. The experiment showed that these things didn’t matter all that much.

Imagine if he kept trying to become a top perfomer by studying original problems and getting himself featured in the top scientific publications. In his mind, he’s doing all he can to be a top perfomer. But he won’t succeed because he’s working on the wrong things!

Speaking with the other top performers is not enough

Do you find that top performers don’t seem to give good advice?

When you bring them out to coffee and ask them what is important to become a top performer, you’ll probably hear generic sounding stuff like “set goals with your manager and have regular check-ins blah blah.”

But you know that’s not what makes them successful. They want to help so why aren’t they giving you the right advice? It’s simple. Top performers simply don’t know what makes them stand out most of the time.

That’s why you need to make your own observations.

The language of top performers

Last week, I told you about how I uncovered the language that top performers in my company use. They talk about the value they’ve created for the company.

Projects undertaken should:

  • save time or money,
  • create additional sales.

And this is how I’ve started quantifying my value to the company.

Take for example, I’m working on this project that helps my company comply with financial regulations. The project value can be calculated based on the cost of not complying. Will the company be fined? Will there be an embargo? What are the costs of doing this project vs not doing it?

I can quantify my value based on costs I’m helping my company avoid.

Your company’s language for success

The language of success varies from field to field. So don’t copy what I’ve told you. The language varies depending on factors like company culture, demographic… That’s why you have to do your own research.

Find the top performers in your company. What words do they use?

Listen and study the words they use to describe their work.

This will give you insight far beyond what they are saying on the surface.

Communicating value

The hidden language will give you an insight on how your company judges top performers. The 2nd part is letting the right people notice it.

These was where the two staff being let go failed at. They instinctively understood how the company evaluates top perfomers and were pouring their efforts into high leverage activities.

But they made one fatal mistake.

The right people didn’t notice what they were doing.  Most of us don’t work in a situation where our achievements are automatically broadcasted to the right people. We have to work at it.

For the two staff being let go, their project had taken some time to get off the ground. And they weren’t creating much value in this period. This was rightly seen as “unproductive” by the management. It took some time before the project’s value was realized. This first impression that management persisted because the two of them had failed to update the right people.

They could have been doing their work on the International Space Station as far as management was concerned.

Do you know the right people?

If you work for any big organization, it’s very likely that more than one person impacting your final evaluation. Your performance review goes through several rounds. You’re likely subject to matrix reporting and it’s likely you have more than one boss. All of them have an impact on your success with the firm.

It’s not just about how well you’re doing you work, it’s also about how the right people are viewing your work. Early in my career, I was asked to work full time on a project, and the project manager was the one that knew the work I was doing.

When performance reviews I came around, I got a bad score because the person doing my reviews was not the project manager, it was the department manager. I got the bad review overturned by asking for a seperate review process with the project manager. This is what happens when you don’t keep update.

Who are the people who can influence your performance?

In a big company, there’s definitely more than one person who has a say on your performance, you need to keep profile on what their agenda is. These days, I keep cue cards on people who could influence my performance. And I keep this in mind when setting my performance objectives for the year.

PS: If you want to know the 3rd important thing in becoming a top performer…

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  1. Hi, you are absolutely right. it is who you interact with, who needs whose help to curry favour with the bigger bosses, who can apple polish and make small talk.. just dont be the weakest link…

    • I think we should aim to be the strongest link in the chain as well 😛 Great work needs to be followed with great “marketing” of your work.

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