As year-end review season approaches for businesses and their employees, understanding what defines achievement becomes paramount. After all, workers who exceed their goals stand to gain increased salaries and even increased responsibility through promotions.
However, there’s a vast difference in how workers of various ages, genders, and positions define professional success and whether they meet their own standards.
The research team at business.com conducted a study of nearly 1,000 current employees to shed light on how professionals perceive their achievements and how these perceptions impact their career trajectories. By exploring their definitions of success, managers of all types of workers can better understand what motivates their top achievers.
Currently, 57 percent of workers view themselves as higher achievers than their colleagues. This revelation serves as a crucial starting point for organizational leaders looking to harness the full potential of their teams. The individuals identifying as high achievers hold a robust sense of self-confidence and manifest a pronounced ambition concerning their career progression.
In the study, senior managers were more inclined to characterize themselves as high achievers than their lower-level counterparts. This distinction among managerial levels underscores the importance of understanding how different roles perceive and embody achievement in the workplace.
The research also revealed that remote workers were less likely than their full-time, in-person colleagues to label themselves as high achievers. One reason could be that people working in person tend to get more feedback and mentorship from their coworkers. This feedback can be valuable as it empowers workers to know precisely how to improve themselves and achieve more in the workplace. Without feedback, workers could also judge themselves unfairly and consider their contributions and achievements to be less significant than they really are.
Additionally, the mounting pressure for employees to return to the office could impact workers’ self-perceptions. The hesitancy among remote workers to identify as high achievers might be rooted in concerns about their standing within the company, particularly when compared to their in-person colleagues.
Rather than caving to the pressures of “hustle culture,” which puts work at the center of life, high performers actually seem to prioritize a healthy work-life balance. Respondents answered questions about their personal and professional habits to understand the differences between high and average or underachievers.
Despite working few overtime hours, high achievers displayed punctuality and arrived to work early more often than their average peers. High achievers prioritized professional development and exercise and utilized more vacation days than average and underachievers. Notably, the typical self-described high achiever had used 65 percent of their allotted vacation days this year, but the typical underachiever had used just 45 percent. This could indicate that underachievers may feel pressure to keep working without rest to compensate for their perceived lack of progress.
Their commitment to well-being was evident through their regular engagement in mindfulness and stress-reduction practices. Beyond the workplace, high achievers actively participated in networking and considered volunteering a higher priority, showcasing a holistic approach to success. There could be several reasons why self-described high achievers seemingly prioritize these activities, especially if they earn more than workers who identify as average or underachievers.
Interestingly, workers had varied definitions of professional achievement, depending on their age, gender, position, and even their self-described success level. Marked differences emerged, especially between self-described high-achievers and average workers, which can provide insight for people looking to grow their careers quickly.
Using advanced text analysis tools, our researchers synthesized definitions of success from hundreds of workers to find common themes in what it means to be a high achiever. Then, we found the key differences in definitions of success between demographic groups.
By Self-Described Achievement Level
|High achievers were more likely to mention…
|Underachievers were more likely to mention…
|Women were more likely to mention…
|Men were more likely to mention…
|Generation Zers (ages 18-26) were more likely to mention…
|Millennials (ages 27-42) were more likely to mention…
|Generations Xers (ages 43-58) were more likely to mention…
|Baby Boomers (ages 59-77) were more likely to mention…
One defining hallmark of a high achiever is that they’re not typically content with their current status: a staggering 82 percent believe they deserve a raise, and 58 percent are eyeing a promotion. In addition to exploring perceptions of achievement, we asked workers about their perceptions of how they should be rewarded for their achievement.
About 84 percent of full-time workers in our study feel they deserve a pay raise. Interestingly, 78 percent of workers whose workload decreased or stayed the same over the past year felt the same way. This could be because many employers offer their employees cost of living increases to help workers keep up with inflation. Unfortunately, a recent study found that nearly half of all business leaders will not make cost-of-living adjustments next year, which may be a surprise for underperforming workers expecting a salary bump.
Another significant disparity emerged between the number of full-time workers who feel they deserve a raise and those who plan to follow through and ask for one. While the majority held the conviction that they deserved a pay increase, fewer than one-third had concrete plans to make the request.
|Raise expectations, by gender
|All full-time workers
|Full-time working women
|Full-time working men
|I deserve a raise in pay
|I expect to receive a raise
|I plan to ask for a raise
Gender disparities in raise expectations also warrant attention. Although a similar number of men and women considered themselves deserving of raises, fewer women expected or planned to ask for one compared to their male counterparts. This raises concerns about the persistent issues of gender pay gaps and cultural workplace dynamics that impact the negotiation landscape.
A similar trend emerged when exploring job promotions: A striking 84 percent of respondents believed they deserved a promotion, yet a considerably lower number expected that it would actually materialize.
In this situation, employees may recognize that promotion decisions are not solely based on their individual merit but also depend on factors such as organizational budgets, availability of higher-level positions, and internal policies. Additionally, the awareness of a competitive work environment where multiple deserving individuals vie for a limited number of promotional opportunities could lead to a more cautious expectation about the likelihood of personal advancement.
Moreover, the discrepancy between feeling deserving and expecting promotions may also be rooted in communication and transparency within the organization. Suppose employees perceive a lack of clear communication regarding promotion criteria, timelines, and opportunities. In that case, they may express their sense of deservingness while remaining uncertain about the practical likelihood of promotions occurring.
Delving into generational differences, Generation Z stands out. These young adults aged 18-26 are newest to the workforce, and notably, felt most deserving of promotions compared to their elders.
Sixty-seven percent of Gen Zers expect a forthcoming promotion, compared to just 48 percent of Baby Boomers (aged 69-77). This reflects an ambitious nature among Gen Zers. Their early exposure to technology may have fostered their adaptability, making them quick learners and well-equipped for higher-level positions in tech-related industries. The pervasive influence of social media, where success stories abound, may contribute to this generation’s heightened sense of deservingness and comparisons with peers and industry figures.
Again, promotion expectations among remote and onsite workers reveal a noteworthy trend. Workers employed in totally onsite settings were likelier to believe they deserve and expect promotions than their fully remote counterparts.
Our study of nearly 1,000 current employees revealed diverse perceptions of professional achievement and its impact on careers. Notably, 57 percent see themselves as higher achievers, a vital insight for organizational leaders. High achievers prioritize work-life balance, professional development, and activities beyond the workplace. Remote workers, influenced by the return-to-office debate, identify less often as high achievers. Generation Z stands out for its ambitious promotion expectations, partly shaped by technology exposure and social media.
Analyzing raise and promotion expectations uncovers a gap between deservingness and action. Gender disparities also highlight ongoing concerns about pay gaps. The study prompts leaders to navigate the complexities of individual perceptions and organizational dynamics, emphasizing transparent pathways for diverse definitions of success.
In December 2023, business.com researchers conducted an online poll of 934 people who were currently employed. Fifty percent were women and 50 percent were men. Eighty-seven percent were full-time workers and 13 percent were part-time workers. Participants ranged in age from 18-77 with a median age of 38. Seventy-three percent were white, 10 percent were Asian, eight percent were Black, and eight percent were of multiple ethnicities or chose not to specify. Fifty-three percent were individual contributors and 47 percent were managers or executives.
Participants were asked to identify their self-perceived level of professional achievement compared to their peers, and then to describe in their own words their definition of “high achievement.” We conducted a thorough text analysis of the definitions to categorize and interpret the answers effectively.