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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Archive for January 2018

Define Yourself, Define the Organization, Define the World

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Having a mission, a sense of purpose about one’s activities has almost always proven to be a path towards generating higher levels of personal pride. Whether that pride is about your activities, your beliefs, an organization you work for, or some other facet of your day-to-day life.

Having a higher purpose mission is one way in which we define ourselves.  A nurse or doctor is helping the sick and maintaining health, a teaching is preparing the next generation, while students are preparing to take their places in our societies, a police officer is bringing safety and security to our neighborhoods, a firefighter is saving lives and property, a sanitation worker is keeping our cities and towns clean and livable, a craftsperson revels in the quality of their work. The list is potentially endless and each person, no matter their role in our society strives to define their place, their sense of purpose. Those who achieve a positive sense of purpose, I would argue, end up not only scoring higher on pride scales, but also in general life happiness.

Those who struggle with a sense of purpose to their lives, struggle on many other fronts as well. The good news is that people can change how they define themselves, their sense of purpose, over time. Someone who is struggling with that sense of purpose, either on their own or with assistance, can achieve a renewed sense of purpose and live a more fulfilling life.

A body of research has now shown that if you can encourage people to think along the lines of how they define themselves, it is more likely to lead to them taking action congruent with that definition, than if they think about just the action specifically. Christopher Bryan, a psychologist at Stanford University, has conducted a series of experiments on a variety of topics that makes this point. For instance, getting someone into the mindset that they are a voter, a participant in our democracy, increases the likelihood that they will vote over simply getting a commitment from a similar person to vote in next week’s election. Likewise getting someone to define themselves as a person who recycles, increases that behavior over simply asking people to engage in and getting them to commit to recycling activities.

Now we know that “nudging” a voter or recycler to engage in those activities also increases the likelihood of action being taken. An example of a voting nudge would be to as specifically as possible get someone to plan out how they will actually cast that ballot. So for instance, planning out how will they get to the polling station, which if any identification is required and locating that identification, or obtaining it ahead of time, determining what time of day they will vote, putting it on their calendar, arranging for childcare if necessary, etc. In other words helping the person visualize and plan out each step necessary to successfully carry out the behavior is more likely to result in the behavior being carried out. As it turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, getting them to define themselves as a voter in the first place has additional benefit, increasing the likelihood of a vote taking place.

In the organizational world, if you want to change the trajectory that an organization is on, it can be very important to change the actual behaviors that people engage in. In other words, for example, if you are trying to improve quality, and all you do is try to change attitudes towards quality, hoping that the old behaviors that led to quality problems will resolve themselves, what tends to happen is that the old behaviors override the attitudinal changes you are working upon and the old behaviors reinforce the old attitudes. That approach is like pushing a large boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down time after time. Rather, it is more effective to begin with some of the behaviors that are causing the poor quality to emerge, change them by showing, teaching, modifying, measuring etc. the specific behaviors, while at the same time working to modify the attitudes around what is acceptable quality.

And now a new additional potential step that can help insure success, work at the very beginning to have people join your quality journey and sign onto defining their mission their sense of purpose to create high quality.  So:


  1. Change the mindset, the definition of purpose/mission
    • Think of these as nouns – I am a voter, I am a recycler, I am a quality fiend
  2. Change the behaviors
    • Think of these as verbs – I vote, I recycle
  3. Change the attitudes
    • Think of these as outcomes, as mindsets and behaviors change attitudes will often follow.

Now how can we scale this up? Say our existence on this planet was faced with a challenge. The planet is warming and this will have all sorts of negative consequences. There is climate change and increased instability in the atmosphere (due to increases in atmospheric energy), there are changes coming in ocean salinity which can change ocean current patterns with which we are familiar as well as change the ocean’s habitability to current life forms, the artic permafrost is melting which has the potential to place unimaginable amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, as well as allowing long dormant bacteria and viruses to reemerge. Rising sea levels threaten coastal locations as well as numerous islands. The list of other really negative consequences to global warming is long, including threatening humanity’s very existence.

Our ability to take action on a global scale up to this point has been limited. Even though the United States is currently the only nation on the planet – think about it,  the only nation on the planet, that has walked away from a treaty that is a first attempt to wrestle this problem to the ground. Previous attempts in the USA have focused on changing behaviors and while that is extremely important, it is not perhaps where we should have started.

Ever wonder why school kids are so concerned, so impassioned about climate change, even when their parents may take on a less concerned, or less action oriented stance? They may feel, “after all, what can one person do” or they may not believe the science. But the kids have a different mindset. They think about themselves as stewards of the planet and the creatures that live upon it. Changing to this steward mindset among the majority of adults can be a beneficial first step to getting people and organizations to change behaviors. The only question is it too late?

The potential of applying mindset/mission/purpose definitions to all kinds of problems is there and the potential benefits are great. The motivation and/or resources to do so may be lacking.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

January 25, 2018 at 8:10 pm

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