Who is Watching the “Why?”

Recently, I watched a great show called “Rehab Addict.”  It is a reality TV show where a woman buys condemned homes and restores them to their original forms.  In this episode, filmed in Detroit, she worked for 4 months on a 1920’s era house that had been damaged when the house next door burned.  The restoration was cool, but what struck me was that as the restoration was nearing completion the neighbors began to volunteer their help with the painting and landscaping on the weekends.

I can understand her motivation to work a weekend, but why would a whole group of people volunteer their time to help a woman on a TV show?  I believe the answer lies in the how the people of that neighborhood saw how her work could help their community. They didn’t share her motivation to complete a project for a TV show. They saw a neighborhood with two fewer eyesores and trouble spots; a cleaner and safer neighborhood for themselves and their families; a neighborhood that could be part of the Detroit renaissance.

Their enthusiasm to work came from their understanding of the purpose for the work.

When there is a clear purpose for work it engages energy we don’t even know we have inside us.  We see it all the time in emergency situations when the purpose is clear and immediate.  People see what needs to be done and don’t need any more incentive to work hard.

The first responsibility of a leader is to LEAD.  To LEAD is to give people a clear image of the finish line so it answers the purpose question “Why are we doing this?”  In your company, department or team, who is responsible to capture the energy and commitment that comes from making sure the “why” is understood?

Can you articulate “why” you do “what” you do in a way that gets people excited?  Often, work becomes routine and we get very caught up in the “what” we do and we lose the opportunity to engage that extra effort people are willing to expend on things that have meaning.

Celestial Seasoning Teas once said their purpose is to promote healthy living – that is different than saying we stitch tea bags.  Disney wants to make people happy – again, different than saying I put little kids on roller coasters.  Not all of our work saves endangered species or protects the environment, or has that sort of universal appeal or high moral visibility.  But, as a leader it remains your challenge to help people be part of something meaningful and in doing so capturing that reserved energy.

Interestingly, this is not just about getting more out of people. People who report their work has meaning also report higher degrees of job satisfaction.   They say that some people live to work and others work to live.  I don’t believe that.  I believe most people would like to work in a job that allows him or her to grow personally and professionally and to put in their full effort mentally and physically because they are supporting the greater good in some meaningful way.

So the questions remain…”Who in your company, department, or team is paying attention to the “Why?”  Are you helping your people to understand the meaningful purpose for their work?  There is a vast pool of energy, commitment, and creativity that is unlocked when you make that connection for your people.

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