How is purpose related to performance?

What explains the energy and enthusiasm that is either present or absent when people take action?

I’m sure you’ve noticed it.

Some teams or individuals bring determination, creativity, responsibility and joy to their work and others bring resistance, avoidance, resignation, disdain and fear. The first group take effective action and the second group move things and themselves around with no apparent concern for the outcome.

What explains movement vs. action?

The answer is meaning.

The meaning people give to situations explains how they behave or how they perform.

Human beings need meaning

Throughout history there has been one recurring question that has guided and shaped human thinking and action. That question is: why?

Why questions have several forms e.g. why does something occur, or why should something be done.

Indeed the entire foundation of philosophy is based on this one question.

Don’t worry I have no ambition on providing a treatise on man’s quest for meaning, and I certainly will not to try to explain why we ask why. It’s the nature of the question that it can never be fully answered – explains why we tend to want to strangle little kids who quickly grasp that this question is an excellent way to keep our attention.

Just consider – at least for now – that meaning or the need to have meaning is at the core of our very humanity and we either learn an effective practice of providing our own meanings, or meanings will be provided for us by those who may not have our best interests at heart.

Consider also that there is nothing “real” to meaning.

There’s no reality to meaning

People need meaning, and there’s no reality to meaning. If there was reality behind meaning we would all agree. And we don’t.

Note that in the following questions there can be no definitive answer to any of them, and that the very questions themselves convey preconceived meaning:

  • If the Jews are God’s chosen people why have they suffered so much throughout history?
  • Why do people kill other people in the name of an all loving God?
  • Is there a heaven and a hell?
  • Why do we produce so much weaponry when the money we spend on it could be used to eradicate ill-healthpoverty and illiteracy; the very conditions that breed war and terrorism?
  • What was she thinking when she put on that dress?
  • Why did she ask me to do this stupid task?
  • Why did Hillary stay with Bill?
  • What accounts for toe jam, and where does that term come from anyway?
  • Why did the chicken cross the road?

The answers we provide to questions like these are the meanings we give, and the meanings aren’t real.

Don’t confuse agreement with your meanings with the “truth”of the meanings, and then attack those who don’t agree with your meanings.

It’s ALL made up. Even the questions are made up.

People will either make up meanings on their own, or accept meaning that’s given to them by others (sometimes passed down through the generations). That’s the fundamental nature of humankind.

Every object that you look at and recognize has meaning, every situation has a meaning, and the meanings that you have for some of those objects or situations are not the same as mine.

Take a look around you and name every object you see; you’ll find that for every name e.g. pen, paper, computer, book, tree, hallway etc. all have some associated meaning or story of what it is and what its for.

You’ll stop when you see something that you don’t recognize and then you’ll ask someone, “What is that?” followed by something like “What is it for?” or “What does it do?” You’ll ask the same for some new situation or behavior that you have never encountered before.

It’s amazing to see how quickly and with how much certainty people will attribute and accept one meaning for something that could have many other meanings or explanations.

The media fills our appetite for meaning and most of us don’t do a very good job of screening the meanings that are being fed to us.

But why should you care about the meanings other people give? Because …

… meaning provides context for action

When electioneering politicians speak, when trial lawyers speak, when brand advertisers speak, they are trying to get you to accept their meanings, their interpretations so that you can act (vote, judge, buy) in their favor.

This as far – as we know – is a uniquely human phenomenon. When a tree falls in the forest or there is an avalanche, the forest animals don’t try to figure out why it happened; they just move towards or run away.

Same for the current BP oil spill off Louisiana. Aquatic life has no capacity to give it meaning, they either adapt, or die. The ability to attribute meaning and its attendant handmaidens of possibility, opportunity, blame and suffering is unique to us humans. (And possibly raccoons.)

The meaning you accept from others, or make up yourself gives you a consequent action or tendency to act.

If you sit on a jury and accept the defense attorney’s meaning or interpretation of events, you will acquit.

If you accept one politician’s interpretation (meaning) of the state of the country and economy you will vote for that politician, if you accept no politician’s interpretations you may not vote at all.

If work for you means toil with no reward; following orders that don’t make sense, you will do everything you can to avoid it and resist the directives of your boss.

Meanings provide reason for performance or lack of

You have meanings that are either in plain view or so camouflaged in your thinking that you are no longer aware of them. You may call these beliefs, paradigms, laws, convention, culture or faith.

In all cases they give you what there is to do, how to do it, and how you feel about doing it.

Often when you do something that doesn’t “feel” right, its because you are taking an action that is in conflict with some meaning that you have given to that action.

The moral of the story is that if you want to enhance performance in your direct reports or in the teams you participate in, don’t blame people or their character, look to the meanings they are giving to their circumstances, to their jobs and commitments.

If you want to improve relationships, increase their performance, have them work as teams etc., look for ways to change the meanings they associate with you, their jobs, and their commitments. Create practices that manage the meanings that people automatically give to your directives and actions.

Contact me if you wish to learn how you can do that for yourself or your team.

Any thoughts? Contributions/acknowledgments welcome.