The incredible, recurrent importance of “Why”
In this brief article I’ll run through a few key psychological theories of the past century, and highlight the recurrence of the ‘Why’ in human behaviour, and how we can use it to our advantage in the workplace.
I started to think, as I was watching Simon Sinek’s important TED lecture on how leaders inspire action through a coherent sense of ‘Why’ a company does what it does.
There are many fantastic ideas in his talk, but they aren’t as much a ‘discovery’, as perhaps Sinek claims, as they are a continuation of a recurrent theme. This theme transcends many schools of thought. It is not an idea confined to leadership or workplace psychology; the importance of ‘Why’.
The “Why” of psychoanalysis
Freud placed a heavy emphasis on the drivers of human behaviour. His interest, and arguably that of most psychologists, was primarily in the understanding of ‘Why’, rather than ‘What’ or ‘How’.
To Freud, that which exists at the most inaccessible level of his topographical model of the mind — the deepest layer of so-called iceberg — is the unconscious mind.
The unconscious mind, without our ever being aware it is doing so, dictates our decision-making, our motivators, and our emotions. To freud, the ‘Why’ is explained by our (often immoral or unacceptable) desires, needs and urges, along with other traumatic childhood experiences.
Thus, the psychoanalytic method involves bringing these ‘hidden’ motivators into the conscious mind. When we understand ‘Why’, we can then begin to heal.
Man’s search for meaning
Then, during the second world war, Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Frankl endured unimaginable horrors as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps at Theresienstadt and later Auschwitz.
Frankl died in 1997, but you can still hear him explain this search for meaning, in his (sort of predecessor to a) TED lecture here.
Viktor Frankl — endured unimaginable horrors then devoted a career to the importance of ‘Why’
Frankl’s main argument, in his epic treatise on Man’s Search for Meaning, and subsequent therapeutic method logotherapy was that essentially, the will to find meaning in life is man’s primary pursuit, and the accomplishment of this is a key to reduced distress and heightened sense of wellbeing.
Frankl saw, even in humanity’s worst condition, the quest for meaning (or ‘Why’), and directing our behaviour accordingly, as being our most important exercise.
The ‘Why’ in modern cognitive therapy
Fast forward a good half-century, and we see the emergence of a new cognitive therapy; one whose focus is explicitly on the “Why”.
In acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), we see a rhetoric more than reminiscent of Frankel’s ideas. First you must establish the values that govern your identity, and align your behaviours to them.
In much the same way, distress is caused by a misalignment between our values and our actions, and through rectifying this dissonance, we can live a more meaningful life.
This is where we see the term ‘values’ entering the rhetoric. But what precisely do we mean by values? They are different to goals, though the two are closely related. They tend not to shift too much over time.
Values can be brought to mind by spending a second pondering the following; How would you like to be remembered? How would you like your friends and colleagues to describe you to others? Ultimately, our values represent the things that are most important to us, and therefore are hugely important aspects of our lives.
The ‘Why” in the workplace
Fast-forward yet again, to the present day (or at least to Sinek’s TED lecture). What Sinek does is capture the workplace psychology zeitgeist — starting with ‘Why’.
Companies are quickly learning the importance of identifying their mission, and basing decisions around the values inherent at an organisational level.
But what do we mean by this? Are we describing the values of the company as an entity? Or instead the cumulation of the individual values of its constituent members?
In 2017, one journal article on the subject in particular caught our eye. Here, the authors assert that identifying and using our characteristic values at works lead to much better outcomes (defined as satisfaction, productivity, and organisational commitment).
However, crucially, it doesn’t necessarily matter to which specific values we ascribe (within reason), but rather that we guide our workplace behaviours by the values we as individuals hold dear.
Credit: Instagram @rowanhoneysett
Understanding our values, and applying them at work, can have wonderful consequences, not only for ourselves, but to the success of the company.
This needs to operate at an individual level though. Often companies attempt a top-down values rebranding which, unless there happens to already be very high levels of ‘values congruence’ within the company, tend to be ineffective at motivating their people.
Once we understand our values, we can begin to direct our behaviours by the things that matter most to us, allow us to live our best selves, and make the most out of our working life.