Going Up? The Secret To Navigating Career Growth and Ambition

Going Up? Secrets of Career Growth

“Going Up?”

This the common reframe you hear as you step into an elevator.

This past week I spent 3 days masterminding with colleagues at the San Jose Doubletree Hilton. I noticed immediately that my room on the 7th floor was on the HHonors floor. I wondered if I had earned it with my previous stays (not many. . . ) or whether it was because of our group size/package. For no explicable reason, I felt proud of my room on a named floor.

Then I entered the elevator one evening with another colleague who had to enter his room key to get to one of the concierge level floors on 10.  My floor no longer felt special, his floor had limited access. I couldn’t even visit him without permission from important key-wielding colleagues. What a blow to my ego.

This feeling of desiring the status of those higher up, I recognized, can be the powder keg of corporate life. Perhaps it lights a fire under your rear, but it can also blow up in your face and leave you feeling burned.

As humans and social animals, we are incredibly status conscious. It’s not pettiness or small-mindedness. It’s not even a sign that we haven’t reached a higher plane of consciousness. Feeling higher status gives you increased happiness chemistry in your brain while also lowering your stress hormones. David Rock even quotes studies that “primate communities show that higher-status monkey have reduced day-to-day cortisol levels, are healthier, and live longer.”

The question then becomes, if you’re moving up in your organization, are you focusing on who you’re “higher” than” or who you’re “lower” than? Is there a right answer or focus point?

Let’s look at this question from two different perspectives:

From the perspective of career advancement:

While there isn’t a “right” answer per se. There seem to be some clear research-backed perspectives that are worth keeping in mind.

If you focus on how much you’ve achieved and how far you’ve come, you’ll likely feel better about your status at work, leading to higher feelings of confidence, lower feelings of stress, and even greater focus.  Not only that but when you feel like you have higher status, you can process more information, even more subtle ideas, and have more resources to keep yourself on a logical, even keel without getting “over-emotional.”  All winning outcomes and behaviors to cultivate in any workplace environment.

The key is to know how to strategically down-play your status in crucial workplace interactions so you don’t kick-up other people’s status concerns and enter into a status one-upmanship match or power play duel.  To successfully manage any kind of “down-playing” strategy requires a lot of security in your own sense of self, such that you’re not threatened by deferring to others.  And of course you can’t defer all the time or your statuswill actually plummet.

Negotiating the workplace hierarchy to assert yourself successfully without ruffling too many feathers is akin to walking along a tightrope.

From the perspective of personal growth:

Personal mastery, as related by organizational development guru Peter Senge, can be represented by the image of a stretched rubber band.  On the bottom end of the rubber band is your current reality (what your status/position/happiness is within your current organization).  On the top end of the rubber band is your vision or ultimate goal. The stretch between the two ends of the rubber band is the tension that either pulls your current reality towards your vision, or vise versa.

It’s tempting to feel this distance between where you are now and where you want to be and define it as a problem, something wrong with you, your company, your chosen career path. This is the situation of knowing that you’re hotel room is on 7, but the c-suite is on 10 and acutely feeling your lack of keys to get to the higher floor.

The alternative is to view the distance as a creative and energizing force.  You have a vision, a dream, a reason to leap out of bed every day and propel yourself closer. This distance can be a motivation to creative something bigger than you’ve ever done before.

So perhaps your current status seems far away from your ultimate vision. Great! Take that desire, and use it as fuel, not condemnation.

Because being alive and having new goals, new dreams – that is the creative tension of ambition and growth.

The key, I’ve seen, is to live into that vision/reality tension with joy, to relish your ambition.  Because what makes people miserable is the expectation that one day you will have arrived and you’ll “have it all.”

Integrating both ideals:

Play the status game against yourself.

Challenge yourself to grow, to set goals, achieve them, and set new ones.

Feel like a success for continually upping the ante, not like a failure for not having figured it all out.

Notice how you’re one floor higher than last year. Forget about comparing yourself to your former peer who you now report to.

Can you do that?

Comment below and let me know how you feel about the status game and the creative tension around your vision. I love hearing your thoughts!

And sign-up below to get my ongoing free leadership development strategies. . .

Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

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