Managing traditionally incurs tremendous overhead in ensuring each person does exactly what they are “supposed” to do and nothing less (or more, for that matter). Commands of goals and objectives plus controls over performance and behaviors cascade down the hierarchy through every manager and to every person in the enterprise. Such actions could never keep up with the pace of business, however – a problem growing more acute by the year. Fortunately, a much more efficient, effective, and humane way of aligning the behavior of workers with the needs of the enterprise stands at the ready.
In Unleash Potential we covered the first law, the law of potential, derived in addressing who creates value for the enterprise. But every enterprise then must figure out how to put its human potential to work.
So next comes the second of seven questions regarding enterprise value creation: Why do people come together to create value within the enterprise? The answer we found was to organize in a way that satisfies the needs of others while simultaneously meeting the needs of each worker, which can best be done as an organization. This means managing functions to effect alignment in order to bring about organization, the domain of enterprise value creation that forms groups with a common pursuit. It all comes down to meaning, both personal and collective.
Personal Meaning First Principle:
The initial first principle for effecting alignment, personal meaning, gets at the very essence of our human existence. Victor E. Frankl, the Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, identified humanity’s main concern not as meeting physiological needs or finding safety (as Abraham Maslow suggested), but rather as discovering and pursuing meaning in life. As described in Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning,(1) it was his realization of the power of meaning, and the meaning he cultivated in his own life as a prisoner of war, that gave him the perseverance to overcome years of brutality, surviving where so many around him died. Though we hope that no one ever again need conduct such a search in circumstances even remotely resembling Frankl’s, his profound experience penetrating to the depths of his being revealed the preeminence of meaning in our human existence.
Meaningful Purpose First Principle:
Sociologist and education critic Alfie Kohn relates Frankl’s thinking to workers and the enterprise in his book Punished by Rewards. In answering the question “What is a good job?” Kohn proposes: “Let us start by aiming high: at its best, it offers a chance to engage in meaningful work.”(2) He cites Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian psychologist best known for identifying the highly engaging state of “flow,” as declaring that people want consequential jobs. It’s not just about having fun, Csikszentmihalyi observes; rather, the most fundamental question is “Are we making a difference?”(3) A good job is more than one that provides merely a paycheck; it’s one that provides meaning as well.
We take this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, taking personal meaning and applying it to the enterprise as well. We identify the meaningful purpose first principle as essential for effecting alignment of intrinsically motivated workers. And in order for an enterprise’s purpose, manifest in the intention of its businesses, to be meaningful it must fulfill the needs of some aspect of greater humanity; it must let the people in the enterprise know that their individual and collective work reaches out to make a difference in the lives of others and in the world at large. We place that first among the criteria for the meaningful purpose of any enterprise, which must be declared, promulgated, and especially lived and upheld in a way that it:
- enriches greater humanity;
- simultaneously enriches the workers within the enterprise;
- aligns all employees, partners, and stakeholders in the direction and movement of the enterprise;
- functions as a two-edged sword, determining what is in and what is out (including who is in and who is out, as every employee must ascend to the proposition it makes);
- works for the people who choose to be in (whether or not those who do not so choose view it as silly, trite, or unworkable); and
- is concise, evocative, and timeless.
People liberated to ascend to a common, humanity-enriching purpose naturally align themselves in its pursuit. Thus meaningful purpose actually serves as the enterprise lynchpin linking together the two challenges of managing we discussed in the Introduction: at what to aim the activities of the enterprise and how to employ workers to achieve those aims. It not only provides for the common engagement of intrinsically motivated employees, but also furnishes a powerful guiding light at which to aim the activities of the enterprise.
From Frankl’s personal meaning and our meaningful purpose first principles we deduce the second law of managing:
The Law of Meaning
Only the enterprise that infuses meaning,
through a shared purpose,
effects alignment among fully engaged workers.
As in the case of the preceding law of potential, the law of meaning stands in stark contrast with conventional managing, which attempts alignment by specifying behavior, predefining roles, and restricting communication structures. Such actions impede both the growth of individuals and their contribution to the enterprise.
Only in recent years, with its ongoing failure to be effective, did conventional managing entertain the addition of meaning to its repertoire. But when added atop commands and controls, efforts to add meaning are hit and miss, if not downright counterproductive, especially because cynicism easily arises when such actions override a supposedly meaningful purpose.
Instead, the law of meaning calls for infusing meaning in place of specifying roles and behavior. Meaning then aligns the organization on the proper course, negating the need for commanding direction and controlling behavior. With this guiding light, the organization becomes fluid, constantly recalibrating itself in active pursuit of its shared purpose.
The law of meaning then clearly points to its associated imperative for managing:
Imperative to Effect Alignment: Infuse Meaning
In adherence to the law of meaning, managing must infuse
meaning with a purpose shared throughout the enterprise
that aligns the thinking, behaving, and acting
of all workers.
When managing infuses meaning throughout the enterprise, the shared meaningful purpose intrinsically motivates workers, collectively aligning their actions and behaviors to create value in line with this purpose. Together then, the first two imperatives – unleashing potential and infusing meaning – exercise the view of workers as wholly human who fully engage in the meaningful purpose of the enterprise. They call on all workers to be the source of enterprise creativity, energy, and renewal.
Just as fully and completely meeting employees’ innate needs is an ideal to continually seek but unlikely to be totally fulfilled, as mentioned in Unleash Potential, infusing meaning everywhere and in great measure proves most difficult. However, building your alignment practices on the foundation of meaningful purpose, rather than on command & controls, more effectively pulls your enterprise down the path of dynamically aligning its full human potential. And the closer you get to the ideal of infusing meaningful purpose throughout all personnel, the more creative, innovative, and adaptive your enterprise will be in enriching humanity and thereby in gaining ever-greater economic value.
With the first two laws of managing underpinned by a correct understanding of humanity, the next four laws relate to activities of the enterprise, beginning with the law of creativity.
(1) Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959, 2006).
(2) Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), p. 189.
(3) Ibid., citing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Intrinsic Rewards and Emergent Motivation,” in Mark R. Lepper and David Greene, editors, The Hidden Costs of Rewards: New Perspectives on the Psychology of Human Motivation (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1978), p. 215.