What It Really Means to Know Your Worth in a Corporate Environment

What does it mean to know your worth outside of traditional measures like salary, benefits, and bonuses?

My son doesn’t struggle with “knowing his worth” when it comes to asking for a raise. He’s pretty calm and self-assured about his skill set, knowledge, abilities, and performance and he just… goes for it. In all the talk of snowflake millennials, he’s either an outlier or we’re all missing something.

Maybe we’re missing an important lesson about what it really means to “know your worth” in a corporate environment.

To be clear: I’m not equating worth with salary. However, it would be impossible to separate the two entirely.

There are both intrinsic and extrinsic components to consider here:

  • The intrinsic motivators of excellence in any position are varied and wide, but certainly include job satisfaction, work-life balance, feeling appreciated and respected for our contributions, taking on challenges, working on products or with people and organizations which have passion and maybe align with our personal values, etc.
  • Extrinsic? Yeah, it’s mostly show-me-the-monaaaaaaaaaaaaay but we certainly should not discount the importance of a non-toxic workplace, benefits and incentives.

Extrinsic motivation, or carrots and sticks, might be the hallmark of our corporate culture but it can only get us so far. It’s costly to continue to throw bonuses at burned out employees, as it merely delays the inevitable. If you don’t focus on the value of the humans working for you and fix the root cause creating the burnout, they will still leave… they’ll just a leave a few months later and a few dollars richer.

If your desire is simply to delay the inevitable, feel free to continue with the carrots and sticks! Just be honest with yourself and know that the 6 months or so you just bought with the bonus is nothing more than a slightly longer lead for you to seek your new human capital. This is an incredibly short-sighted and vicious cycle.  While you chase your tail to replace the one you know you are losing, there are several others in the background you forgot about completely — who are already interviewing for their next new opportunity.

Paying people to work overtime, providing free dinners for team members working late, and other such performance-based incentives and commissions have all been proven ineffective in making knowledge workers “feel valued” — much less keeping them motivated and engaged.

The truth is that extrinsic motivation is a short-term incentive at best. Individuals tend to work towards intrinsic goals more naturally; they are looking to enjoy what they do while valuing their work as important. This is the reason why people take pride in their work and find meaning behind their actions. By constantly offering extrinsic motivation, corporations focus more on the short-term reward and less on the long-term benefits.

Short-term Rewards = Short-term Results

This extrinsic focus is one of the major contributors to The Great Resignation – something which has arisen now primarily through millennial workers deciding to know their worth.  However, let’s be honest with each other here (and if you know me, you know I am both honest and transparent).  We all knew something like the Great Resignation was bound to happen sooner rather than later.  The Great Resignation is about how we see ourselves, how we treat ourselves, and how we appreciate ourselves & others as humans on this earth. How we spend our time, and those we choose to spend it with are vital to our happiness.  We work to live, not the other way around.

For more years than I can recall and with more companies than I wish were true, I have seen human capital being treated as an expense, not the asset it truly is. I know much of the media discussion about the Great Resignation has also focused on a dissatisfaction with wages, but I am sure you know at least one person who agrees with me, even if you haven’t personally experienced this. A recent MIT Study, which analyzed 34 million online employee profiles to identify U.S. workers who left their employer for any reason (including quitting, retiring, or being laid off) between April and September 2021 revealed how frequently and positively employees mentioned compensation (it ranked 16th) among all topics in terms of predicting employee turnover. This result is consistent with a large body of evidence that pay has only a moderate impact on employee turnover.

Bottom line: a desire to get a bigger paycheck isn’t the most important factor when it comes to where you choose to work.

Overall, corporate culture is a much more reliable predictor of industry-adjusted attrition than how employees assess their compensation. The MIT Study found a toxic corporate culture is 10.4 times more powerful than compensation in predicting a company’s attrition rate compared with its industry.

So, what does it mean to know your worth outside of traditional measures like salary, benefits, and bonuses?

Knowing your worth is integrally linked to self-esteem.

​Obviously, we all want to experience things that make us feel good. And engaging in things that boost our self-esteem makes us feel good. But when we have contingent self-worth, we might engage in activities that make us feel worthy and avoid activities that make us feel unworthy. This can shape our short-term and long-term goals.

For example, if our self-worth is contingent upon us being successful at work, we might only choose jobs that are easy. That way we never fail and ensure that we always know that we are worthy. Having our self-worth be contingent upon (or tied to) outside factors leaves us with little control over how we live our lives. Instead, we’re constantly striving not to feel bad – which is an extrinsic motivator, just like the moolah mentioned above.

Contingent self-worth creates an inability to handle criticism, a re-prioritization of performance over learning, and a strong desire to quit any time we receive any negative feedback. This is truly a loss of freedom! We feel pressured by demands, expectations, and standards, some of which may be set by us and some of which may be set by others. Bottom line: we do things because we think we have to, not because we want to, and that’s a total bummer.

What my son (and, I would argue, many of his generation) understands about knowing his worth is essentially an excellent sense of self-esteem – not one which is tied to external events or validation (or lack thereof). It’s autonomy.

So, whether you’re the boss or the token millennial snowflake (or the millennial boss), remember to know your worth. Cultivate self-esteem and allow yourself the freedom to pursue intrinsic motivators just as much as that next pay raise.

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