The Three Whys of Work and The Power of the People Pyramid

The “More” Button is Broken Beyond Repair. Lead with the “Why” Button.

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the god of commerce and travel. He was not a good god, however, which provided an explanation to the ancient Greeks—wrong as it was—for business deals gone bad and tragedies at sea.

Zeus looked the other way as Sisyphus carried out his crimes against humanity, but one day, he crossed the line. On this day, Sisyphus committed an act so heinous that Zeus had to punish him.

So for the rest of eternity, Sisyphus was condemned to push a big rock up a tall mountain. Just as he reached the top of the mountain, the rock would roll to the bottom, and Sisyphus would have to start all over again.

All day, every day.

Here the ancient Greeks get it right. There’s nothing more painful than meaningless work. When asked to push a big rock up a tall mountain day after day, people stop caring and simply give up.

And that’s a problem. Because when people stop caring and give up at work, performance drops dramatically and business revenue, once robust and reliable, plummets.

What most leaders do when faced with a challenge like this is hit the “more” button. More email, more meetings, more metrics, more manipulation, and more manhandling. But the “more” button doesn’t work. Like trying to save fish from drowning, it achieves just the opposite.

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What the best leaders do when faced with a performance challenge is hit the “why” button, transforming Sisyphean tasks into meaningful mountains to climb. There are three whys you can use to achieve this transformation, but first, let me explain why these whys work in the first place.

Why Start with Why?

The answer to the question, “Why start with why?” is best illustrated in the graphic below, The People Pyramid.

At the base of The People Pyramid is purpose. Human beings crave purpose and meaning. It’s embedded deep in our DNA. Unlike robots (or Sisyphus), we can’t do the same thing over and over again without a reason, a reason that connects with our hearts and souls. When we find purpose in our work, however, the most amazing thing happens. We bring our whole selves to it, not just our minds and bodies, and outstanding outcomes occur as a result.

“The authentic way to increase shareholder value is with a purpose that inspires employees to create innovative products and provide superior service to customers,” writes former Medtronic CEO, Bill George, in Authentic Leadership. “When employees believe their work has a deeper meaning, their results will vastly exceed those who only use their minds and their bodies.”

In other words, we’re wired for why. When leaders start at the top of the pyramid, demanding improved performance, they don’t receive it because that’s not how humans work. When leaders connect with people at the base of the pyramid around a meaningful purpose—their why—this purpose sparks passion, which in turn produces exceptional performance.

That’s the power of The People Pyramid.

The Three Whys of Work

How does a person lead this way? What are the whys you can use to achieve world-class results? There are three—individual, organizational, and circumstantial—and they’re best applied in combination with each other.

1. Individual Whys

The first and most fundamental why is an individual’s personal motivation. The other whys that follow, while they’re quite useful, won’t be as effective unless a team member knows his or her own reasons for working. That may sound hopelessly self-helpish, but it’s true nevertheless.

When I first started in leadership, I avoided conversations that uncovered embarrassing revelations like these, but I soon saw how wrong I was. As I got to know the people working for me, I came to understand why they were at work impacted most every minute of the day.

One person worked at our company to finally own his first house, another to put her daughter through college, another to pay off credit cards completely, and another to support an aging parent. On and on the list went.

When I joined them in their journeys, putting up pictures that captured each person’s cause and celebrating milestones along the way, I received two surprising gifts: unbelievable loyalty to my leadership and a profound sense of joy.

And I found my why, which is helping others fulfill theirs. This is exactly what happened to my friend Loren Brockhouse, Chief Revenue Officer at VANCO, as he grew in his leadership.

“In my fifties, I finally found my work why, to help others to find and fulfill their why. And I’m exponentially more successful professionally through this process,” Loren wrote to me recently. “My work why means that I’m in complete alignment, personally, professionally, and spiritually. It’s a journey that will never end, and it’s the journey itself that’s most rewarding.”

2. Organizational Whys

Companies, like individuals, can also have a cause they pursue, an organizational why that sparks people’s passions. These come in two flavors: internal and external.

An internal why is a purpose inherent to the product or service your company provides beyond producing a profit. Like the work of Medtronic, saving lives through its medical devices, or VANCO, helping communities of faith stay financially viable through the transfer of secure online payments.

But not all companies have a why so direct in nature. What do they do? They find a cause outside of their scope of work to support as a company. One of my clients, a high-end remodeling firm, gives ten percent of its annual profit to support an orphanage in Costa Rica. This company has single-handedly built that orphanage, clothing and feeding hundreds of homeless children.

When work gets hard, which it has in the housing industry more than a few times, he and his team know that desperately poor children are relying on them for their survival. That’s a powerful external why.

3. Circumstantial Whys

A circumstantial why is a commitment to confront a set of prevailing challenges. Beating an unethical competitor who’s stealing your customers, receiving a second round of venture capital funding, or reducing AIDS in Africa are all good examples.

Unlike individual and organizational whys, circumstantial whys have a starting point and a finish line for the obstacles they seek to overcome. I have an executive coaching client, the CEO of a large senior living community, who’s not had one case of COVID-19 on his campus. That’s been his why since the pandemic hit. Or my friend Howard Farfel, the CEO of TalentSmart, whose why has been not laying off any employees during this crisis.

A circumstantial why provides a powerful short-term purpose to rally your people around. Like rocket fuel, it can propel you into the stratosphere, but, also like rocket fuel, it can leave you a burned-out shell. Use it sparingly, but use it when the situation warrants.

Finally, the very best leaders know how to use all three of these whys to effectively motivate their people. They begin by getting to know team members individually, unlocking their unique passions. They then align the entire organization around a cause everyone’s committed to completing and use challenging circumstances that cross their path to drive short-term urgency.

The brilliant Victor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “He who has a why can endure any how.” His how, of course, was surviving a Nazi concentration camp, proving this principle in the most dire of circumstances.

And while most of our hows won’t reach the depths of that despair, the how of work, nevertheless, can be hard. The mountain looms large and climbing it can be agonizing. But knowing why we’re on the journey and the joy of arriving at the summit is what keeps us, and the folk climbing with us, intent on trekking to the top.

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