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Culture Outputs, Meaningful Impact, Mindful Communication

Just Because Something Gives You Purpose and Meaning Doesn’t Mean it Has Purpose and Meaning

One of my clients has an internal business customer that causes him no end of grief. You know the type. This is the person that characterizes every service request as urgent and critical, a drop-everything-you’re-doing-and-take-care-of-my-need-now sort of request because—in his mind—the fate of the company hangs in the balance. I have to confess that I don’t always have the kindest of thoughts for this person, but then I turn around and do the very same thing myself. I send people action items with urgent due dates that have to be dealt with right away because if you don’t then the consequences will be…well…okay, so nothing will really happen, but just do it!

None of this should be surprising. Research has shown us that a sense of purpose and meaning is a vital part in thriving, whether at work, home, or some other endeavor. Purpose that aligns with our own personal values energizes us, motivates us intrinsically, and drives us to strive for greater results. This is good, healthy, and to be encouraged. There is a risk, however, one that can create strife in the workplace, and it is this: just because something gives you purpose and meaning doesn’t mean that it has purpose and meaning.

Purpose and meaning are not properties intrinsically held by objects or activities. Rather, we imbue objects and activates with these characteristics. What to you or I may seem relatively trivial, to someone else may be what gets them up in the morning. Likewise, from time to time we’ve all been the one that’s attaching greater meaning to something than does the rest of the organization.

Here are some ways that I try to address this dilemma for myself:

Get over yourself.

It’s a harsh statement, but sometimes that’s what it takes. Unless your organization, project, or program will stop a nuclear warhead currently in flight, it’s not that important. Sometimes I have to remind myself that my priorities are just white noise to others.

Get interested in others.

I can’t think of a better way to alienate people than to insist that they respond to your needs without first understanding theirs. Take the time to understand the pressures faced by others and how you can help them address their own problems. Do this and they will be far more amiable to helping you solve your challenges.

Understand the difference between “they do care” versus “they should care.”

When I ask a client why someone would care about something, the answer “well they should care” is a red flag. Activists all over the planet tell me that I should care about this or that, but in most cases I don’t—or at least not as much as they feel I should. Tap into what really matters to your audience and you’ll get far better engagement than if you try to direct what you think should matter to them.

Frame your priorities in a way that has meaning to others.

This is classic “what’s in it for me,” or WIFFM. Neil deGrasse Tyson attempts to do this when he makes the case for adding to the NASA budget. He understands that not everyone is as fired-up about astrophysics as he is. However, by tying space exploration to such things as economic growth and continued prosperity for all, he tries to state his priorities in a way that may resonate with others less inclined to look at the stars than they are their wallets.

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