When we think about purpose, we usually do it in grand, cosmic, transcendent terms. That magical moment when the sun radiates, an aria of sound erupts and we finally figure out what we’re supposed to be doing on this planet. At least, that’s the way it’s sold to us in the movies.
This is not to devalue the usefulness of having a sense of purpose. Far from it. It’s a wonderful thing when you have it. And the sadness and disconnectedness that accompanies not feeling purpose speaks to the desire of many of us to determine what ours should be.
Purpose transitions, though. It morphs and shifts. As we move through the stages of our lives, what we think we should doing, and why we should be doing it, evolves. What was important to us even a few years ago now seems quaintly cute, or at least distant from our current situation. And it’s in the in-between-stages of having a purpose—the liminal spaces that we inevitably transition through—that often feel most uncomfortable.
And that’s all well and good to consider and contemplate. But I want us to step down a level (or three) and get a bit less philosophical and a bit more practical. I want to talk about how why shows up—or doesn’t—in our every day lives and activities. And why (see what I did there?) it should probably show up a little bit more.
One of the things I often wrestle with in terms of my day-to-day profession is understanding how my work will be used. In other words, I don’t just need to know what you want. I need to know why you want it. That’s not a challenge, necessarily. And it’s also not questioning the relevance of doing the work I’ve been asked. It is a product of recognizing that if I know why you want something, then I can make sure that you are able to realize that outcome. It also means that I can make sure I approach the job in a way that ensures that outcome is possible.
Put simply, purpose creates meaning. Meaning shapes action. And action without meaning is pointless. Being clear about the intention behind doing something absolutely and completely changes how that work gets done.
A very recent example illustrates this excruciatingly well. I was supporting a client with the launch of a strategically important change project in their organization. The project will have an impact—for some very directly, and for others a little more tangentially—on virtually everyone in the organization. To kick off this work, the team recruited a senior executive to deliver a presentation announcing the change.
This is a role that executives are often called on to play. The expectation is that for a change to be successful, senior management must support the work. Executives have to give their blessing, and then people will line up behind it. Change is presumed to flow top-down through the org chart in a cascade of transformation that leaves everyone magically doing different things. Great in theory. Sometimes very awkward in practice.
The executive in question was given three essential talking points to address. The first connected to where the change came from, and the historical challenges that had been experienced. The second point outlined what would be done. And the third point was to address the impacts and consequences of the change. The essential “why?” The reason that upheaval and rearranging and realignment of structures and processes and systems would occur.
In principle, there is nothing wrong with what has been discussed so far. As I’ve already said, people need to get behind your “why.” They have to connect change with the meaning behind it. The trick here—if there is a trick—is that they need that information not because they altruistically support you and have no ambition of their own. On the contrary, everything is personal. They need to know your why, so that within that they can find a why of their very own. One that aligns, and supports and make sense. Then they can get behind what is being asked.
Sadly, that larger context was lost on the executive involved in the kick-off session. Instead, they spent the vast majority of their time speaking taking the audience on a detailed, blow-by-blow history of the problems, challenges and issues that the organization had experienced over the years. What was supposed to be initial set-up of context turned into exhaustive explanation of everything that was wrong.
Several minutes over their allotted time already, they then briefly talked about the “great project that the team is doing” and finished with “and I’ll turn it over to them to tell you what it was all about.” At which point they smiled, left the stage and walked out of the room. Not unpredictably, the team was stunned. And the audience was left cold. There was nothing in terms of meaning, of motivation, of purpose.
In a change effort like what was being discussed, you absolutely need to understand why something is happening. But that actually rolls through to the simplest, most prosaic things that we do. In fact, I would argue that the small things is where it’s most important to explain why.
To those that have worked for me, it’s not secret that I have had a tendency to be perceived as a micromanager. When I assign something, I very often have specific expectations of what will be done and how it will get done. And for a long time I experienced a dance of frustration where I would assign something, and then not get back what I had expected.
I would argue that this is the root of how a lot of micromanagers actually become micromanagers. When results don’t match expectations, the presumption is that the expectations weren’t detailed enough. And so they get more specific, more defined and more prescriptive. Detail ratchets up. And yet very often expectations still get missed.
This is also, I would argue, why many who should be delegating and managing default to a response of, “It’s easier if I do it myself.” Because, subjectively looked at from their perspective, it feels like it is easier. The time it takes to define and explain and elaborate on what to do feels far more time consuming than just taking on the work themselves and getting it done.
But there’s a different way to tackle this; explaining the why. Not being prescriptive in what needs to happen, but providing context in why it needs to happen (or how the result will get used). As I outlined earlier, knowing the why can then shape the how. And it allows for more—not less—creativity in terms of how the result happens. Work becomes an adaptive challenge of finding the best way because of the why.
I’ve reengaged with that idea recently through volunteering. For the last few months, I’ve taken on the role of production director for a local community theatre. It has a lot of moving parts, includes a great deal of assistance from others and requires the coordination of people who are generously giving of their time to help out.
Managing volunteers is theoretically difficult. You can’t MAKE them to do anything. If they don’t like what they are being asked to do, then they don’t do it. They can leave at any time and for pretty much any reason. It’s the ultimate challenge of attempting to influence with absolutely zero authority.
Over drinks a couple of weeks ago, however, I made a comment that I found coordinating volunteers far easier than managing staff. And I started to think about why that was true. And the realization I came to was a simple one. Simple, but powerful.
When you start with a volunteer, there is a desire for them to be there. There is a level of enthusiasm they are bringing to the table. All well and good, but there is still work to be done, and the challenge is getting the volunteer to embrace that work; to take it on and do it well. That requires explanation, yes. But the explanation is one of why the work needs to be done, of how the result will be used, of the difference that it will make. We are explaining—and motivating—with why.
In a theatrical context, that difference is often in how the audience perceives a show. We want the audience to be delighted, and we want to avoid things that detract from that experience. This can result in extra work and effort than what’s required to just tick the box of getting a task done. In fact, it’s not uncommon to re-work, re-think and re-do the same thing over again to get that experience just so.
The volunteer embraces that, because they care about the result. They care about the why. And frankly, the experience should be no different with employees. In an employment context, it’s the slippery slope of expectation, hierarchy and perceived power that gets in the way. Supervisors presume they don’t have to incent, because they have the power to require.
The only theoretical difference between a volunteer and an employee is that the employee gets a pay cheque for their work. All too often the actual difference is that a volunteer feels enthusiasm for their work, where the employee often unfortunately feels disenchantment or resentment. It doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t have to be that way. That it frequently is that way is a product of misaligned expectations. And mostly that misalignment is a product of the supervisors.
The secret to delegating any task is to start with why. Why does it need to be done? That leads to other why related questions: How will the results be used? What’s important about how those results will be experienced? What does success look like in delivering that experience? If you can explain that, then the rest should—literally—be left up to the person doing the work.
Short of make-work, there is a reason for every thing that we do. Or at least, there should be. Work for the sake of work is pointless (and we should really be asking ourselves why we are engaging in it). If we can connect with the why of the work—and we can connect others with that why—then the results should take care of themselves.
Nancy Batty says
Thanks for another thought-provoking and helpful blog, Mark. Have a Merry Christmas!
Mark Mullaly says
Thanks so much for the feedback, Nancy. And best of the holidays and a very happy new year to you, also!
Andy Gunn says
Mark, This is a nice article. My wife and I have supervised many volunteers and their enthusiasm can be contagious. Volunteers come with varying levels of commitment which present their own challenges. This enthusiasm will transfer to paid staff provided you can appeal to their varied interests which can include a desire for adventure, opportunities for marketable experience, and a compelling vision. Finding teams and leadership that are innovative and dynamic and are wonderful and often regrettably short experiences. I have told my kids to enjoy them while they last and try to replicate these environments where they can so the magic continues.
Mark Mullaly says
Andy, what you describe resonates a great deal with what I was trying to say. And the important thing there is that what makes volunteerism so special (and it can be) is the enthusiasm and passion that people bring. And that CAN be translated into work situations, it just often (regrettably) doesn’t happen. But when we find those situations, they are indeed special.