The “Appearance of Success” Trap

The first company I worked for out of college had a lot of politics*.

“Maybe politics is inevitable. And part of having a job is learning how to navigate people and make your contributions visible so that you can get promoted.”

I thought. So of course, I spent considerable effort on making my contributions visible. While I accepted the fact, I was frustrated and believed there ought to be a better way. I realized I felt as if I needed to appear successful because there wasn’t a clear definition of success. Our teams had no OKRs or systems for decision-making. Because there wasn’t a clear definition of how an employee is promoted, I thought I could get there by schmoozing with the C-suite instead of finishing the mock-ups for our next product.

When success is poorly defined, people find ways to achieve the appearance of success.

When I asked K at Uber whether people were ever promoted because they were good at appearing successful, but didn’t have the skill. She replied, “No, if they didn’t have the skill, they would be fired.” She explained that at Uber, each team and individual knew their definition of success, and if they didn’t meet that criteria, they would not advance.

When success is clearly defined, people are no longer making decisions based on how others will react, but rather, on what they genuinely think will help reach the team’s set goals, moving the company forward.

* Politics is defined as when people choose their words and actions based on how others to react rather than based on what they really think (Lencioni).

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