Milestone Mediocrity

A significant work-related milestone for me is approaching:  I will have been in my current role for 5 years.  This is no big deal to many of my coworkers, who measure their service in decades, but it is the longest period I have been in one position in my relatively brief career.  I had not actually recalled that it was coming until someone made a comment about its approach, but I’m that way about birthdays (my own as much as anyone else’s) and other date-related events.  Milestones tend not to matter to me as events; it is the measurement that matters.

Birthdays are a good example.  There’s no real reason to cheer the passing of a year.  Most people in North America can live through a year without a lot of turmoil.  You celebrate instead the things that have happened during that year – learning to walk, to write, some other growth that took place.  It’s a time to recognize the change that has happened.

Workplace milestones raise a conflict in me.  It seems that it is too easy for an organization to slip into using the milestone – years served, so to speak – as a measure of employee value.  On the one hand, each year creates an employee who can potentially know more, produce more, and return more value to the organization and its customers.  At the same time, if the milestone becomes a more significant measurement – he must be good, he’s been here X years – then it shifts the focus from what is being done to the time that has been spent doing it.  I’ve noticed this in organizations I’ve worked in, and I think it has a negative impact on effectiveness.

I would think that, of course, because milestones are obviously not important to me.  In the workplace, performance reviews and goal measurement are an annual event and are intended to perform the value measurement.  What happens, then, when you have an organization or, more likely, a department within the company, that imparts significance to the milestone as well.  “Joe will get a high performance rating this year because he’s been here 5 years and knows his stuff.”  Joe’s performance should be based on knowing his stuff, not the 5 years.

There has been a great deal of discussion and research into employee motivation.  Recognition is a part of motivation.  I can’t count the number of times that I’ve read that just saying “Thank you” to a colleague, peer or subordinate doesn’t matter, improves that person’s motivation.

An aside here:  why does it seem to kill people to give a compliment or praise?  For something that costs nothing to do, you’d think people would be less parsimonious about it.  It’s in the eye of the beholder, not the speaker, so even if it seems throwaway or making a mountain out of a molehill – “You really saved me some time”, “Thanks for getting back to me so quickly”, “You’re brilliant” – if it’s heartfelt, it’ll be appreciated.  We were issued “Thank You” and “Bravo” cards when I started.  I haven’t used any, because it feels completely inauthentic – unlike my personality, shall we say – to use a card with Bravo on it.  But I took the point that the organization wanted managers to praise staff, and I have tried to do that in my own way.

There’s nothing wrong with recognizing milestones, especially on a personal level.  It can act as an opportunity – as with birthdays or other anniversaries – to not only give recognition but to ensure that the focus is entirely on the intended recipient.  If an organization starts to measure success by milestones, though, it seems to me to be a sign that is unwilling or unable to look at what work is being done.  It may indicate that, in lieu of effectively measuring performance  and needing to measure something, people’s value within the organization will be tied to their longevity.

But, like most North Americans, non-profit employees can often survive year to year without any huge effort.  The lack of profit-driven measurements can enable a drowsy mediocrity to arise.  I can see this complaisance building as staff see that longevity becomes the yard stick for ongoing success – there are few financial opportunities for recognition in non-profits, so continued employment is something that people value – causing them to focus more on their own longevity rather than their customers.  Longevity can be the enemy of taking risks, of looking for ways to improve, of sometimes admitting that what you’re doing isn’t necessary any longer.

I will miss my milestone this year – I have an opportunity to visit a group of lawyers and share information that I hope will help their law practices – but it has got me thinking about how I approach milestones generally, and specifically in connection with how I view the work that I do.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.


  1. Birthdays & anniversaries matter, but success requires more than longevity: @davidpwhelan:

  2. Birthdays & anniversaries matter, but success requires more than longevity:
    via @davidpwhelan:

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