Does Working Hard Really Get You Ahead?

How many times have we heard that phrase, “Work hard and you?ll get ahead in life!” Is it true? Does working hard really get you ahead? I ask that question because the more I read and the more I talk with other people, I doubt if there’s a definitive answer. Certainly when we were younger and in school, there was a direct correlation between working hard and doing well. If you put in enough studying time for an exam or term paper, your efforts would almost certainly be rewarded with good grades.

Does Working Hard Really Get You Ahead?
Does Working Hard Really Get You Ahead?

Good grades and good test scores were almost certain to get you into a good college. And graduating from a good college was practically guaranteed to land you a good job somewhere – right?

Again, I have my doubts.

Certainly for some, but not for others. So what differentiates those who do get ahead from those who don?t? Is it hard work? Is it something else? Or is it something else in addition to the hard work? I say that not as someone who has all the answers (who among us does?). But lately I’ve been pontificating on this idea more and more. And it?s been fascinating to read the variety of perspectives on the subject.

Create Forward Motion

I recently picked up a copy of the book The Nine Things You Simply Must Do by Dr. Henry Cloud. Dr. Cloud has been a popular author in Christian circles, although a good deal of what he writes can easily be accessible to those who aren?t necessarily a part of the faith.

One of the real-life stories in his book deals with a man who started off in a company mailroom. Eventually he became president of a well-known media company. During the time he was in the mailroom, he networked with people in other departments. He also studied his boss and figured out how to meet his need. Extra time was spent researching opportunities within the organization. Dr. Cloud advises his readers that if one wants to ?get ahead?, the important thing to do is get moving. Do something, and don?t whine and make excuses.

Silence is Golden

According to author “LearnVest” at, what you DON?T say at work to your boss is as important as what you DO say. Non-verbal cues can be just as important to helping you move up as the verbal ones.


  • Copy your boss?s body language – but not TOO closely.
  • Avoid bad habits, like shaking your leg or scratching the back of your neck. EThis can signify being uncomfortable or nervous.
  • Present a firm handshake.

Individuals who practice these habits are more likely to be offered higher positions and move up in an organization.

Going Above and Beyond

Trent Hamm?s article over the The Simple Dollar, 14 Tactics for Getting Ahead at Work ? No Matter What Your Job Is tells workers that if they want to move up in their workplace, they need to go above and beyond their current duties and be a model employee. This includes doing things like:

  • Minimizing negative comments about other people.
  • Making productive use of your “downtime”.
  • Being on good terms with everyone in your workplace.
  • Becoming a leader in challenging situations.

It all sounds like outstanding advice.

Of Course – There are No Guarantees

Not everyone is as optimistic about being able to move up in the ranks, however.

Scott Weigle, on his website The Overexamined Life, argues that getting ahead is not as easy as it sounds. He makes the point in his article You?re Great at Your Job. Which is Why Your Boss and Coworkers Are Slowly Killing You. Weigle claims that a combination of 1) compensation detached from productivity, 2) bosses who avoid holding unproductive employees accountable, and 3) workers believing that they will be “taken care of” by the company if they “just work hard enough”, has created numerous dysfunctional work environments that don?t reward individual effort in the way they once did.

Many might disagree with Weigle?s proposal, however, which advises employees who are working hard to ?under-perform? more often.

Organizational Obstacles

Venkatesh Rao wrote an article back in 2009: The Gervais Principle, Or The Office According to “The Office”. He argues that most corporate organizations are organized into three tiers:

  1. “Sociopath” leaders at the top.
  2. “Clueless” managers in the middle.
  3. “Loser” grunt workers at the bottom.

Acording to Rao, “The Sociopath (capitalized) layer comprises the Darwinian/Protestant Ethic will-to-power types. They drive an organization to function despite itself. The Clueless layer is the “Organization Man”. The Losers are not social losers (as in the opposite of ?cool?), but people who have struck bad bargains economically. They’re giving up capitalist striving for steady paychecks.

In other words, Sociopaths are the leaders who start organizations, run them, and hold them together. While they drive much of the growth and innovation in a company?s early stages, they eventually turn ruthless later on. They drive mergers and layoffs in a cold-blooded manner that others are too scared to execute. Losers, who tend to be more unambitious, are happy to coast in their current roles. They sacrifice status, power, and wealth in order to have a life outside of work. It?s the Clueless in the middle who are most likely to develop an unhealthy attachment. They’re loyal to the firm they?re working for, even if the firm is not loyal to them.

The Effect of Personality on Success

Jayne Thompson, who writes extensively on various personalities in the workplace, argues that some personality types are more “hard-wired” to land in higher positions than others</a>. Thompson claims that while there is a “glass ceiling” for women and minorities, it applies equally well to personality type as well.

For those familiar with Myers-Briggs, Thompson points out: ?Evidence tells us that ENTJs and ESTJs make the highest salaries, ENTJs manage the most employees, and an ENTJ is the most likely personality type to become a CEO. If you’re an ISFP, ISTP, INFP, INTP or INFJ, then you can expect to earn around half as much on average as your typical EXTJ ? partly because you are much less likely to land a supervisory role.”

Thompson points out that while these types can get to leadership positions, many organizations feel they don?t have the right skills to move up.

And last but not least, remember Kevin?s article 7 Dark Reasons Why Good Workers Don?t Get Promoted here on Out Of Your Rut? There are multiple reasons you won’t get promoted, no matter how hard you work!

What do you think, readers? Does working hard pay off, or is there something else to it? How much does it depend on your connections, or how hard you network? Does it depend on the organization or industry you work in? Your personality? Your boss? Some other factors? Or is self-employment the better option? Let us know about your experiences!

( Photo by Damian Gadal )

2 Responses to Does Working Hard Really Get You Ahead?

  1. Each person needs to define for themselves what it means to “get ahead”. That dictates the necessary actions. I do think that working hard at the right things will result in success.

    Just putting in hours is not necessarily the same thing.

    I also have observed that often the reward for hard work is to be given more work, so a balance is necessary!

    Finally, a modicum of emotional intelligence is very helpful.

  2. Hi Neil – “the reward for hard work is to be given more work” – that was a commercial for Smith Barney back in the 90s – John Houston, in a distinct British accent, leaned forward and sternly said “The reward for hard work…is more hard work”. Among the truest words ever spoken. That said, I think you’re on target with working hard at the right things. I’ve read and heard over and over that the most important factor in success is working at those tasks most likely to put money in your pocket. Of course, that’s always targeted at the self-employed and the commissioned, but it does have applicability to the employed as well. The problem for the employed though is the tyranny of the urgent. It’s inherent in every workplace, and it keeps people from doing what’s most important.

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