The Importance of “Important”

The late Stephen Covey was well-know for his classic book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”  Habit #3 is entitled, “Put First Things First.”  It’s all about knowing what is important and honoring it by our actions.  Looking at the culture, it would seem that defining importance is more difficult than one would think.  People seem to be confused by this.  What happens?  Confusion becomes a barricade to any action, much less the right action.

Newton’s first law of motion says that a body at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force acts on it.  This is a great metaphor for human behavior.  A person will move from inaction to action only when motivated by something sufficiently important.  Most barricade-busting motivation fits into the following categories: Wants, Needs, and Responsibilities.

  • Emptiness Chooses Wants. — People fill voids with something they want.
  • Pain Chooses Needs. — People relieve pain with something they believe they need.
  • Conscience Chooses Responsibilities. — People choose right actions in obedience to their consciences.

Importance is established when one or more of these motivators takes center stage in the person’s mind and heart.  Sometimes people coincidentally choose Right Actions when Responsibility does not play a significant role.  That is, we sometimes do the right thing for the wrong reason.

Admittedly, the formula is not quite so straightforward.  The strength of the motivators is constantly rising and falling because of emotional fluctuations, changes in personal perspectives and changes in external circumstances.  It’s a dynamic environment.

Here’s what I am certain about.  When an opportunity intersects with importance, we give it the red carpet treatment.  Which means, we mark the calendar.  We rearrange appointments.  We set aside funds.  We post reminders. We tell people.  We tweet.  We follow through.

It doesn’t matter whether the opportunity is one you created or a gift from someone else.  Importance is still the motivation necessary to cause action.  Until then, the opportunity is just another competing option in our busy lives.  Only what we perceive to be truly important finds its way onto our calendars, into our budgets and into our conversations.

What’s on your calendar?  What’s in your budget?  What are you talking about?

Your Birthright of Empowerment

If you listen carefully, you will discover clues about a person’s belief system.  For example, in business when asked what we do for a living, we usually respond with our titles, especially when they contain power words like supervisor, manager, and director.  When I ask business students about their career goals, I frequently hear something like, “I’m looking for an entry level position so I can become a manager.”  When I ask them why, their response could be fairly paraphrased as “having a position that empowers me to tell other people what to do and when and how to do it.”  The underlying belief that graduates (and the rest of us) have is that our bosses wield power over us.  As the conversation continues, that belief would become more and more evident.

How do people with these titles get their power? Is the power real or merely perceived?  I’d say we perceive it from from the motivational practices of rewards and punishment (aka “carrots and sticks.”)  Assuming this is true, let’s imagine for a moment that there is a more effective way to motivate people?  How would that change our perception of the management function?

“It is inconceivable that people are motivated solely or even mainly by external incentives.”
— Bruno Frey

There is a growing body of research and literature suggesting that a management model based primarily on doling out incentives and dishing out penalties to control people is becoming obsolete.  In his book “Drive”, Daniel Pink explains why changes in modern society and greater understanding of human behavior are nudging us away from “carrots and sticks” approaches.  Carrots and sticks are still effective when used appropriately.  But, they not only have limitations, they can also be counterproductive.

“People use rewards expecting to gain the benefit of increasing another person’s motivation and behavior, but in so doing, they often incur the unintentional and hidden cost of undermining that person’s intrinsic motivation toward the activity.”
— Excerpt from “Drive”, by Daniel H. Pink, p. 39.

As it turns out, what we once believed about motivation is incompatible with how people are wired.  It is becoming more obvious that today’s workers, especially those doing highly technical and creative work, are self-motivated by the following desires: 1) self-direction (autonomy); 2) self-improvement (mastery); and 3) relevance (purpose).  Could a business model that leverages these native motivators really succeed or is this some new age fad doomed to fail?

“… the very notion of ’empowerment’ … presumes that the organization has the power and benevolently ladles some of it into the waiting bowls of grateful employees.”
— “Drive” by Daniel H. Pink, p. 91.

So, how does empowerment fit into this post?  In “How Am I Sabotaging My Future? (Part 11)” I wrote about empowerment in the context of professional development.  When I saw a summary of “Drive” on YouTube and read the book, I came to the conclusion that empowerment is our birthright AND is also “ladeled out” as described in the quote above.  Here’s how they both are true.  We’re born empowered.  Bit-by-bit, by submitting to the will of others and conforming to the demands of our institutions, we gradually delegate our inalienable birthright of empowerment.  Yet, we can never surrender it and we can always “undelegate” it.  In fact, NOT “undelegating” is itself an act of empowerment.  So, the connection between this post and the one cited above is simply this.  Engaging in personal development is one way we invoke our birthright AND enhance our ability to capitalize on it at the same time.

This perspective of empowerment is not intended to incite a revolution at work.  It is merely to help explain the inner turmoil you feel when your employer just doesn’t get what makes you tick.  You DO have the power to deal with this turmoil.  How?  That’s a subject for another day and a qualified career coach.