Focus On Contribution, Not Impact

Want to Make a Difference? Focus on Contribution, Not Impact

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I nominate “impact” as one of the most annoying and potentially harmful buzzwords in business today.

Countless clients tell me they want to make an impact. Whether they are leaders in growing startups or tech giants, Millennials seeking meaning or mid-career professionals pursuing their next big job, they define success as having this thing they call “impact.” But what is it really about?

Impact is defined as the striking of one object into another, a collision. This kind of impact is violent, even shattering, like a hammer through plate glass. (Echoes of Facebook’s “move fast and break things” mantra?) When used in the term “Impact Investing,” it refers to the pursuit of a social benefit as well as profit. And because measuring social benefit is trickier than measuring profits, there is an ongoing debate about how and if to measure impact. It turns out it can be pretty hard to assess.

When individuals talk about wanting to make an impact, they typically look at two things: results and role. The first is results: They want to make a difference. They want their work to matter. Many genuinely want to make people’s lives better. The second is about their role: They want influence or “a seat at the table.” They want to be seen and valued. They long to be important. This drive for impact shows up in a variety of ways. An executive coaching client strives to build his influence so that he can increase his impact and make the next promotion and climb the career ladder so he keeps up with his peers. A job-seeker says she the most important criteria for her is impact, so she wants a role where she can have “ownership” (another buzzword that refers to autonomy and responsibility) of part of the business. When others talk about impact, they may include making a difference by helping others. Many managers have a sense of accomplishment from building and leading a great team. Some leaders find it rewarding to coach or mentor a more junior person. Whether pursuing power and promotion or helping others, all of these examples of impact have the individual at the center (like the striking of a pebble in a pool that sends out ripples). As the cliché goes, there is no “I” in “team,” but “impact” starts with I, and there is an element of ego-centrism in all these pursuits. 

In his recent New York Times Op Ed, David Brooks observes that seeking happiness through individual achievement can lead to a moment of reckoning, failure, loss or disappointment. Brooks holds up those who take this moment as an opportunity to shift away from the egoistic pursuit of happiness through achievement and start seeking joy through commitment and contribution. They stop putting themselves at the center and instead offer themselves in service to others.

If you shift your focus from impact to contribution, a world of possibility opens up. You commit to something other than yourself—an institution, person, cause. Your aspiration becomes less about the importance of your individual role or action and more about helping create a shared purpose or benefit. Your title and place on the career ladder are in service of your contribution rather than a measure of your worth. Being a contributor means that you are focused on giving, and this generosity suggests that you will also be open to others’ input, ideas and feedback. You can also be less defensive: if you are not at the center, you can invite others in without fear that they will take something away from you. You are less concerned with who gets credit. You pursue excellence not to get a gold star but because you want to do your best to make good on your commitment. If you are in a leadership role, you are likely to be a servant-leader. You value responsibility and responsiveness less than ownership or getting credit. Whatever part you play, you can find value and meaning in contribution.

In any case, I can’t help but think that the whole impact question is one that exists only for a privileged few. Most people are too busy trying to keep ahead of their bills to worry about whether they are having a unique impact. But contribution is available to all, and there are many ways of making a contribution every day. A middle manager may have no voice in setting company direction but can still create a positive work environment. An administrative assistant helps leaders stay organized. A CEO provides vision, direction and resources for his or her company. A hospital janitor cleans the room of a patient. And anybody who works for pay to support a family makes a contribution. All these actions have meaning and significance when we shift from chasing individual impact to making a contribution.