Beware of the Success Assumption

Whenever I’m leading discussions on recruitment, retention and engagement of new employees, I often caution leaders and organizations to “Beware of the Success Assumption.”

I offer the same warning to college students who are preparing to enter the workforce.

Beware of the Success Assumption.

It’s dangerous.

It’s subtle.

It tends to be in our blind spot.

The Success Assumption can hurt a leader’s ability to connect with a team member or employee. It can also hurt a new employee’s ability to understand their manager and organization.

What is it?

The Success Assumption is the expectation that others will define success and work to achieve success in the same way that we do.

As you can imagine, this assumption can play out in a number of ways. One of the most obvious places the Success Assumption occurs is between generations.

For example, I once saw the Success Assumption in action at my Mom’s college graduation party.

Back in the early 80’s, my Mom was a non-traditional student. She decided to return to college after my brother and I had started elementary school. As a result, I was able to attend her graduation party when I was 10 years old.

I remember the gathering distinctly. Family and friends came to our house to celebrate. As everyone was milling around our small living room and kitchen, my dad asked for everyone’s attention. He had a big announcement. As he raised a glass to celebrate my mom’s achievement, he also was able to tell the room my mom had secured a great position with a local company. She would be starting immediately. I can remember both my parents beaming as they shared the news.

To them… this was success.

But for someone else in the room, it was failure.

A few minutes after the big announcement, my grandpa quietly asked my dad to take a walk. They slipped away to the backyard. I watched their conversation from the kitchen window as they traced our fence line.

Later that night I found out my grandpa was concerned. In fact, he asked my dad, “Are you okay? Are you having financial troubles? Do you need to borrow some money?” I can remember my dad’s shock as he recounted my grandpa’s questions to my mom.

The “Success Assumption” helps to explain this disconnect.

It had been one of the happiest days for my parents, but it was cause for concern for my grandparents. See… for my parent’s generation, if both parents were working, it meant you were on the road to bigger and better things. To my grandpa’s generation, however, if your wife had to work outside the home, it meant things were falling apart. It was failure.

Two different definitions of success.

Two different ways to achieve it.

The Success Assumption.

Cam Marston speaks to this in his book, “Motivating the ‘What’s In It For Me?’ Workforce.”

“It is clear that understanding each generation’s point of view is crucial to successful management across generations. How ironic is it that one generation’s idea of success can be rejected as failure according to another generation’s point of view.”

This can happen between a parent and a child.

It can happen between a teacher and student.

It can happen between a manager and employee.

For example, I recently sat by the Mayor of a mid-sized city while flying to Florida. He saw the “Success Assumption” referenced on one of the slides as I was working on my laptop and he asked about it. After briefly explaining the concept, the Mayor erupted with “Oh, this played out in my office just this week!”

I asked, “How so?”

He leaned in and started to tell me the story. He explained, “Well, I have two stellar employees who are just three or so years into their jobs. I have been really impressed with them, so I decided to call them into my office to offer them a little encouragement. After a little small talk, I shared with them that I really saw a lot of potential in them.” He continued, “Then I said, ‘I think you both are on track to do what I do. I think you both would make excellent Mayor material!’ But,” then he said, “I was shocked by their response.”

I asked why.

He said, “Well, they looked at each other and then back at me. Then one of them spoke up to say, ‘With all due respect, we don’t really want your job.” He said he had a hard time hiding his surprise, and responded with “Why?”

The other employee said, “Well, we see you doing a lot of great things for the community, but we also see that you’re rarely at home before 7 pm. And, you experience a lot of pressure from everyone’s expectations of you. That works for you, but we’ve both been talking that we want to serve the community but in other ways.”

The Success Assumption strikes again.

This Mayor was hoping to encourage these employees with saying they were on track to have all that he had. But he found out quickly that his version of success was very different then his younger team members.

The Success Assumption.

When it happens it can cause misunderstanding, frustration and division.

The biggest challenge is that most of the time the Success Assumption happens at a subconscious level.

We’re not aware of it.

We’re blind to it.

As a result, it can cause us to feel a sense of division and misunderstanding without even understanding the source.

The good news is that we can overcome the Success Assumption. And we can help others to beat it too. Not only that but we can use it to inspire and equip those around us to live more true to their own version of success.

There are 3 keys to overcoming it:


  • ASK

  • TIE


The Success Assumption can occur across generations, but it can also happen between people with different value systems and/or upbringing.

Let’s face it.

The Success Assumption can happen anywhere and everywhere.

The first key is to acknowledge it.

As we start to realize that someone’s idea of success (whether in life, in a career or even in a shared project) might be different than our own, our first instinct is to feel the other person is wrong.

Because… different often feels wrong.

However, acknowledgement begins with realizing that sometimes different is just different.

When I’m working with groups, I will use an exercise to illustrate this point. I’ll select two volunteers from opposite sides of the room and hand each a photo of the White House. Without showing the rest of the room the photos, I’ll begin to ask the volunteers some questions about the image they’re looking at.

“Is there a fountain in the photo?” The volunteers will usually look at each other first but then respond with a timid, “Yes.” “Is the building white and can you see a flag on top?” They start to get in a groove and their confidence increases. They tend to respond with a bolder, “Yes and yes!”

Then I go a step further. I ask, “Can you clearly see some pillars?” They tend to nod in agreement at this point, but then I surprise them with my next question. “How many pillars do you see?” One will answer, “Four.” But my other volunteer will often look a little doubtful as they respond with “Eight.”

I then ask, “Is the shape of the structure above the pillars triangular, round or squared?” Usually, at this point the volunteers start to look at each other in a quizzical way, as one says, “Triangular,” and the other responds with “Squared.”

By this time, some of the other participants are on to me while others are scratching their heads. The volunteers had both been looking at photos of the White House. They’d agreed on everything they were seeing initially. Why would there be this disagreement at the end?

Did you figure it out?

I’m betting you did.

One volunteer was looking at the front of the White House, while the other volunteer was looking at a photo of the back of the White House.

Even though their responses were different, they were both right.

The difference was their perspective.

Different might feel wrong, but often times different is just different.

This applies to different vantage points on the White House, and it can also apply to different vantage points on what success looks like, especially when it comes to thinking through life goals and the ways we work to achieve them.

As you interact with the many students and organizations that you serve, there is a good chance that there will be many different views on what success in life looks like.

Acknowledging the “Success Assumption” starts with us.

Watching out for those times when different feels wrong, because they’re different than our own.

Personally, if I start to feel the Success Assumption begin to creep in, I’ll often repeat the phrase, “Different isn’t always wrong. Sometimes different is just different.”

Recognizing it and calling it out starts with us.

But it continues as we help others to recognize it and address it within themselves.