For anyone who saw Nancy Meyers’ film, "The Intern," the difference between career success and career satisfaction will hopefully be evident.
For those who haven’t seen it, "The Intern" explores counterpoints between youth and maturity; consuming drive and centred resilience; knowledge and wisdom. It brings together an over-committed and determined young executive with a humble retiree, recruited on a return-to-work programme, looking once again to make a meaningful contribution and recreate a sense of belonging.
While these two characters appear at opposite ends of the career spectrum, their relationship offers an insight that could benefit many career development conversations: the difference between career success and career satisfaction, and how success may be void if we aren’t addressing our real need for fulfillment.
When we think of career development, the themes that typically follow tend to focus on advancement, expansion of responsibility, eradication of weakness. The pressure to continually improve performance year-on-year has become the primary measure of corporate success. Yet in parallel we find workplace stress rising and mental health conditions accounting for over 25% of absences.
The quality that separates the film’s elderly intern from his younger employer is not simply maturity or previous career accomplishment; it is his acknowledgement that being appreciated is a key to satisfaction along with his ability to be open to the flow of any situation in which he finds himself.
For any manager, recognizing the need for employees to understand and be able to articulate what they need in order to attain career satisfaction is an important step in any career coaching conversation. However, individuals may have given little thought to this or be unaware of what it means for them personally. How do we know when someone is in this situation? Lackluster conversations that leave both manager and employee frustrated or dissatisfied could be one clue, as could noticeable drops in productivity or engagement or openness around not feeling completely happy in their role.
Often the tendency in such circumstances is to delve straight into conversations around aspects of the role that they are unhappy with, satisfying development needs, discuss training or other interventions to solve the "problem," which while important, may actually be the wrong starting point. In such circumstances it may be more beneficial to the individual to step back and regain a sense of perspective. What’s important to them from a self-satisfaction point of view?
Unclutter and focus on "Self"
No easy task in a 21st century world filled with constant distractions and pressures. Yet the ability to unclutter our minds and de-stress, so that we can achieve true inner reflection and help us understand what it is that “satisfies” us, is exactly what we need to take time for. So what can we do to help employees achieve this?
Meditation is something that many successful business leaders incorporate into their daily routine, and has been practiced around the world for centuries. Encouraging your employee, or even yourself, to take just 10 minutes a day to sit quietly and focus on their breath, or perhaps take a "digital detox" day to eliminate over-stimulation and calm a "wired" nervous system offers substantial rewards. The health benefits of a mindful practice, as any Buddhist monk would attest, are plentiful and scientifically validated too. Balancing the brain chemistry, reducing adrenalin, cortisol and managing the "fight or flight" function of the amygdala all contribute to significant stress reduction. These are small and simple steps to "enlighten" your load, and there are other benefits too.
What does this do and how does it help with career satisfaction? Essentially we’re invited to step back, on a daily basis, from the excessive "doing" of life, and appreciate our fundamental "beingness." This is the real gift of mindfulness, as it opens the door to a state where we are able to begin to relate to our Self – tuning out the voices of anxiety, confusion, opinion and attuning instead to that small, elusive voice of pure intuition. By turning the volume down on the "doing" voice of our personality we can learn to tune in to another frequency; one that doesn’t necessarily broadcast a voice and instead delivers a flash of inspiration or a sense of "something." Either way, they are sure signals that your personality is dialed down and you’re in dialogue with your Self.
If we frame these states of doing and being as reflections of our lower and higher nature, we can begin to identify that day-to-day decision making is often a reactive force of lower nature – illustrated in "The Intern" through the young protagonist’s relentless meetings and communications that consume her day, her mind and ultimately compromise her life.
With our lower nature in the driving seat, packing our days with process, tasks and delivery, it’s no wonder our higher nature has no air time to reflect, discriminate or define solutions more congruent with the true needs of our Self.
By developing a dialogue with our higher nature our outlook and approach to daily events and long-term decisions take on a distinctly different quality. It allows us to move from instinctual to insightful; short-term goal to long-term intention setting. Incongruence lies at the heart of many a career derailment so career development conversations benefit immeasurably from encouraging this level of reflection and appreciating the higher guiding principles that we often struggle to articulate.
Career satisfaction: the key to engagement and productivity
Helping employees develop techniques such as this will ultimately benefit the organization and help managers provide relevant support to employees around their career development. It actually puts the employee back in control of their career, understanding what it is that is important to them, what they want to achieve long-term while providing them with a vision or an idea to work towards. The results will manifest themselves in two ways: firstly knowing what is important to them and being able to clearly articulate what they are looking for, and secondly they will offer proactive suggestions for how they could achieve it in their current role – resulting in higher levels of engagement and productivity.
So the next time you encounter an unhappy or disengaged employee, step back for a moment and be mindful of how you can help them achieve long-term career satisfaction.