Self-concordance: A key to unlocking meaning and purpose
Today there are approximately 7.5 billion people in the world. In fact, it’s estimated there will be about 224,000 births just today and an increase in global population by 41 million just this year. Is it any wonder we often feel small and insignificant in our working lives!
It’s also little wonder then that this generation of employees are seeking meaning and purpose more actively than previous generations. The dichotomy of our connectivity is that we understand not only how small we are but also the huge impact one person or idea can have on literally thousands of lives throughout the world. Finding meaning in our work is then both absolutely vital and incredibly complex. There’s certainly no singular path or right way that can be written down and dutifully followed by everyone... and I hope I’d know - I’ve committed my life to helping people find more meaning and joy through their work.
The obvious complexity is that we are all different and have unique skills, desires and experiences. In the workplace this is what I call “shared experience / unique context” – we share our workplace experiences but our context of this experience is always unique and personal. Given that this is personal we need to look at meaning in organisations not just as a compelling and meaningful organization purpose, but also as the inward journey of discovery for employees to find their true self and what is meaningful to them.
Let me digress slightly and share that in my experience, one of the most powerful frames of reference when dealing with a human workforce at scale is self-determination theory’s basic psychological needs of autonomy (making our own decisions), competence (the mastery and building of our skills) and relatedness (our community of connections and relationships). There are two reasons for this.
Firstly, these intrinsic motivators are common to all of us and are driven by base psychological needs. If you’ve ever tried to change a culture for hundreds of thousands of employees you quickly learn that there are myriad needs, desires and concerns, and a framework of principles and commonalities on which to build is incredibly important to change behavior at scale.
The second reason is that this is a beautifully simplistic frame of reference that can be applied to a whole host of workforce challenges. Time and again I see root cause analysis or 5 Why’s takes us back to these concepts. Workers frustrated at doing things one way when they know it could be done better - not enough autonomy to drive change. Workers demotivated through the routine of doing the same thing day after day – no competence building or personal growth. Workers feeling out of place, lack of culture fit or little empathy from management – not enough relatedness. If we can take care of these needs and infuse these elements in all the experiences that make up what it is to work in our organization we will already have created an infinitely more joyful workplace.
But the true power of this is the way that these intrinsic motivators unlock an engine of personal motivation in employees. This ability to connect with ourselves at a deeper, more intuitive level creates an amazing platform for us to extend self-determination into something even more powerful and yet rarely articulated: self-concordance.
Self-concordance says that the closer a need or motivator is to our “true” selves the more powerful it is at motivating us. But not only is it more motivating, it creates an amazing transformation from finding satisfaction in achieving a goal, to getting satisfaction simply from pursuit of the goal. Think about this – when I am pursuing my true self needs I will be more motivated for the goal (expending more focus and energy, for longer periods) but also more satisfied with the journey, and more satisfied than I would be by achieving a goal which is not “mine”. We see this all the time in the decisions people make in the workplace - the times when someone is doing great work in areas outside of their core metrics or measures with little recognition. Or the times where a large change program falls absolutely flat because there is little connectivity back to the daily, meaningful lives of employees.
In this way, self-concordance is the gateway to finding meaning and purpose and also the special ingredient for creating an engaged workforce and thriving organizational culture. What’s more, while much is discussed about Purpose in organizations, the real reason that purposeful companies have been shown to have better performance is often self-concordance – that employees self-concordance with the vision is deeper and better understood in a way that activates differential focus, energy, creativity, persistence and determination in pursuit of shared personal and organizational goals.
So as business leaders, coaches, mentors or individuals, what is it that we can do ourselves and for others to become more self-concordant? Quite simply, a quick internal audit against the needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness is a good place to start:
- Am I making the decisions about where my future goes? And am I empowered to explore and deliver change that progresses me towards my goals?
- Am I building the skills and specialisations that I want, and am I mastering the skills I need to be who I really want to be?
- Am I working with and for people who are meaningful to me, and do the relationships I have support me to become who I want to be?
By answering these few simple questions or providing a prompt for others we can create a path to self-concordance, from which purpose, meaning and better organizational results will usually follow.
Ben Perez designs experiences for employees that help them find more joy and meaning at work. He’s completing a masters in design strategy and innovation as a distraction from his main pursuit – trying to find the world’s best brunch.