Reaching our personal peak (Part 2)

Nov 11, 2019

Why is work today so unfulfilling and how can we change that? Let’s set our sights on having an impact and figure out a way to get there.

Today, most high-achieving professionals want impact. They want to leverage their skills, talents, assets, gifts, and experiences to make a difference and leave a legacy at the office and beyond.

This is not only possible – especially in the AEC industry. It can be a profitable strategy for leaders and organizations in terms of growth and employee engagement, recruitment, and retention. To achieve impact, however, leaders and organizations must decide whether they are more about their projects or their people.

An important consideration is to understand how work and workplace motivations are, and can be, designed to align with our human needs.

New rules. Business – especially today – is about people.

Whether our organization is large or small, its success rests on people serving people. So, it only makes sense that our needs to thrive at work would align with our needs to do so as a human.

Based on my work, research, and direct experience, I’ve developed the following hierarchy for work-related motivation as illustrated in the image below.

A summary of these needs and how they track with our human needs (See Part 1 of this series for more on this) is presented below:

  • Basic competence and readiness need. Our general ability to work and maintain employment. To do so, we must be sufficiently advanced in satisfying our overall human needs. It is especially true today that we bring our “whole-self” to work. Employees at all levels need to recognize that this foundational component can be compromised at any time due to life circumstances that affect us, even if just temporarily.
  • Performance need. The desire to work and produce positive results (i.e., be fruitful) is built into us. Doing so is also our largest source of “safety” on the job. The aspects of work we are drawn to the most, however, are often connected to our work and life seasons. Early in our careers we strive to “master our craft” and “make our name.” Later, we strive to “make a difference” and “leave a legacy.”
  • Engagement need. To feel good about, connected to, and grow in our work, we need to be acknowledged and cared for on the job. We also need to know that our contributions matter and that they are recognized. This forms our sense of belonging and “love” in our work environment. Our direct supervisor has the largest influence on engagement, especially early in our careers.
  • Connection need. Early in our careers, we work mostly with our clients, teams, and supervisors. To further progress, however, we need positive and effective peer-to-peer relationships. These relationships help us measure progress and build self-esteem. They can also be a critical source of new ideas, encouragement, support, and accountability as we expand our influence and brand both inside and outside of our organization. Unfortunately, these peer-to-peer relationships for most are comparatively weak.
  • Continuous growth need. What comes next after we have mastered our craft and made our name? Another 10, 20, or 25 years of the same? That will not inspire most professionals, and will not drive organizational growth. As we progress into the mid-career and beyond, we need higher-levels of personal and professional development. For most technical and professional services industries, the most significant areas of need today are related to “people skills,” “mission,” and technology advancement.
  • Awareness and high EQ need. The conditions and the environment where others want to be and thrive. In order to successfully lead and influence others, we need to truly know and effectively lead ourselves. Change is constant and momentum can be a trap. To be able to advance and improve, we need to understand our past, how it has influenced our present, and how both can work together to realize a greater future. We need to know our who, not just our why, what, and how. We also need to discover our gifts and learn how best to leverage those along with our skills and talents. Our quickest and most direct path, and ability to shorten “learning curves” and eliminate “blind spots” will be with the help of wise counsel, coaches, and mentors. We then need to apply this to others and demonstrate a high-level of emotional intelligence (our “EQ”) and management effectiveness so that others want to be led by us.
  • Impact need. The use of our skills, talents, assets, gifts, and experiences to positively change the lives and conditions of others. We want to make a difference and to leave a legacy. Early in our careers this can be through our work. Later, no matter our position, prominence, or level of achievement, our new peak extends beyond our projects and our “day jobs.” Our drive will be to serve and advance others in new ways and in new contexts both inside and outside of our workplace and marketplace. And ideally this will include the communities in which we live, work, serve, and play, as well as those we are called to.

Although we progress through and between our work and workplace needs similarly to our human needs, most talent today fully recognizes and “wants” to begin to experience all these needs as they develop. This is particularly true for impact – an element with true generational convergence.

New results. To thrive in the new era, we need new approaches to both strategic planning and learning and development.

This article is intended to provide an initial framework to adjust our focus and aim so that we can begin to create new levels of engagement, growth, performance, achievement, and success.

Part 3 of this series focuses on what leaders and organizations can do to break through and beyond the very elusive hurdle of engagement that limits us. Part 4 focuses on how to leverage a fully engaged and motivated organization to maximize our collective and client success.

Peter Atherton, P.E. is an AEC industry insider who has spent more than 24 years as a successful professional civil engineer, principal, major owner, and member of the board of directors for a high-achieving firm. Pete is now the president and founder of ActionsProve, LLC, author of Reversing Burnout. How to Immediately Engage Top Talent and Grow! A Blueprint for Professionals and Business Owners, and the creator of the I.M.P.A.C.T. process. Pete is also host of The AEC Leadership Today Podcast. Pete works with AEC firms to grow and advance their success through strategic planning implementation, executive coaching, performance-based employee engagement, and corporate impact design. Connect with him at

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