Aspirations should always exceed reality. Maybe we require a certain amount of disappointment to activate ambition. Perhaps we all need a smidgen of psychological dissatisfaction to inspire us. Think of how depressing life would be if there was nothing better to look forward to than what you have right now.
A few days ago, a friend fumed at the “predictably irrational” behavior of his workforce, griping that some people actually complained that they did not want to know that they were actually competitively paid. That did not surprise me. I offered my opinion that feeling that you are underpaid creates a very hopeful future positive world view, while confirmation that you are quite well paid is actually discouraging (in terms of future expectations). At the time, I gave little thought to wider ramifications.
Of course, I suggested to him that folks naturally like to feel that the status quo is the pits, and they prefer to hope that current storm clouds will change into blue sky tomorrow. Most people want to look forward to things improving in the future. Well, you can’t feel overly optimistic about the future if what you have today is the best, or as good as it is ever going to get.
Then I suddenly saw the light, when I stumbled upon the parallel finding in the 2011 WorldatWork Journal article titled Abandoning Pay for Performance Myths for Evidence:
“….additional analysis showed that larger incentive payouts were also suddenly associated with increased attrition. Those getting high ratings and payouts seemed to be concerned that they wouldn’t see the same outcomes in the next year, as supervisors spread such designations and wealth among teammates over time;…”
That also makes perfect sense. Once you win the top pay award, you recognize how difficult it was, what a strain it created, what a psychological and emotional price you paid for it, and the diminished likelihood that you will get it again next year. Been there, done that, becomes a downer. Or perhaps you realize that the value of the reward won’t even pay the cost of the divorce attorney now required because you so badly neglected your spouse during your single-minded pursuit of filthy lucre. "Take the money and run" might be one consequence. Some may parlay their great achievements and inflated W-2 into a foot-promotion, a new job across the street paying 20% more in guaranteed base than the old position and probably easier to perform, too.
Performance expectations may be lower in the new post. All the managers who signed off on your selection will have a vested interest in your apparent success, too. Despite the hostile glances of internal candidates disappointed at being passed over in your favor, it will really be difficult for the people who approved your hire to admit that they made a mistake, no matter how badly you fumble your new job. But, by golly, the dissatisfaction of rivals can and will turn into an organizational positive, as they jockey to outdo each other proving that they really should have been chosen before that unknown outsider. Most important, you will have a new fresh clean playing field with no past precedents to block your hopeful dreams of a sunnier future.
Enough of idle speculation. The reality seems to be reflected in the inverse lesson of the slogan contained on my “personalized” sweatshirt displayed above. It expresses the wish that your glass may never be empty. Now I realize that the next and perhaps better companion wish should be, “May your glass never be full.”
If you got all your desires, you would then probably yearn for something more. It’s human nature. Achieving what people say will make them happy may actually frustrate them. It almost appears that if you’re not a little unhappy, you may end up very unhappy. This makes me think, and I suspect that’s a good thing.
What’s your opinion?
E. James (Jim) Brennan is Senior Associate of ERI Economic Research Institute, the premier publisher of interactive pay and living-cost surveys. Semi-retired after over 40 years in HR corporate and consulting roles throughout the U.S. and Canada, he’s pretty much been there done that (articles, books, speeches, seminars, radio/TV, advisory posts, in-trial expert witness stuff, etc.) and will express his opinion on almost anything.