Is your team sick of purpose?

Is your team sick of purpose?

Audience members sometimes ask to hire me to deliver the “the exact” speech they heard me give. I typically agree. Then I fail.

I add a story, fold in new data, twist the ending or otherwise change the presentation I’m supposed to leave untouched. When reviewing my slides ahead of time, one client noticed my disobedience. She sent an email asking why I changed the “perfectly good” presentation she had hired me to deliver.

I saw her point. Why was I unnecessarily complicating the job? Why was I refusing to honor her request?

Since I had no good answer, I promised to repeat with precision the speech she heard. The evening before her conference, I struggled to rehearse. As I prattled into the hotel-room mirror, I lost focus and yawned uncontrollably. I was literally boring myself to sleep. A very bad sign.

at the time, I wasn’t worried. After all, repeating something that had been a hit would, logically, be a hit. I blamed my weariness on sleep deprivation and went to bed early. The next morning while the master of ceremonies introduced me, I felt something unusual for me: Dread. I’ve presented on two-hours sleep, on crutches, with a 102 fever and an hour after a crying fit. Even in these circumstances, I’ve bounced onto the stage with the excitement of a child entering a playground. This time, however, I barely summoned enough energy to feign enthusiasm.

Why was I being such a lunatic?

I had no answer, but as far back as 1890 someone did. Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, could have answered my question with his quip “A change of work is the best rest.” Not sure what he meant? Thirty years later psychologist Anita Karsten explained it through an experiment. Karsten studied people repeating a simple pleasant activity. For example, she instructed a man to read poems until he stopped enjoying it. Sounds straight forward. Yet, something odd happened. As instructed, the man quit when he went hoarse. Then immediately proceeded to complain loudly about his depleted voice.

In fact, this odd thing happened over and over again. Volunteers reported that their hands were exhausted from drawing, but drew with gusto when following a new instruction. Similarly, a volunteer stopped making tick marks when she could no longer move her arm, but casually fixed her hair with the same arm.

What’s going on with these people?

No, they weren’t faking it. The hoarseness, numbness and exhaustion were real to them. It turns out that repetition makes pleasant experiences stop being so, and can even make them painful. As inconvenient as this seems, I see its upside. I might otherwise still be making macramé plant holders — something no sane person needs – and giving them to friends. Yep, that’s one of the many uncool things I did as a teenager.

Neither Karsten nor the Harvard psychologist who documented her work, Ellen Langer, appear to have named the phenomenon through which doing a lot of something sucks the joy out of it. So I’ll do the honors: “Repetition Induced Wackiness.”

Getting weary from speaking, reciting or drawing the same thing makes some sense. One would think, however, that we would never tire of something as grand as making a positive social impact. This turns out to be partially true and partially untrue.

Even the best

One of the most enjoyable 30 minutes of my week is tutoring Camilo, a first-grade student, via Innovations for Learning’s online TutorMate platform. This program is so friendly and slick that  Camilo’s reading improved dramatically within three sessions. I was convinced that I was the world’s best tutor. Little did I know that my results were standard. I’ve since recommended TutorMate to corporate clients and all have told me that their employees relish it. As you can tell, I’m a rabid TutorMate fan.

I was, therefore, stunned when TutorMate’s National Director, Dan Weisberg, told me that many of us delighted tutors will opt out within five years. My point? Don’t think your job purposing is so moving, so inspiring, so popular or so wonderful that it won’t need refreshing. If a social-purpose program as well-designed as TutorMate has to manage Repetition Induced Wackiness, all social-purpose programs do. There is an important twist, though.

They’re not tired of purpose

A manager recently asked me “Should I give job purposing a rest?” Team members were progressively less interested in her once-popular social-purpose activities. She didn’t know why.

My short answer: No.

We don’t get tired of social purpose any more than we tired of eating every day. They are both human needs. We do get tired of eating ham sandwiches at every meal, however. Similarly, we can’t repeat the success of job purposing by endlessly repeating our successful method of job purposing exactly as before.

Overcoming Repetition Induced Wackiness

Fortunately, there’s no need for a job purposing overhaul. As Karsten discovered, small changes are enough to reignite enthusiasm. I recommend asking your team for suggestions and occasionally instituting the most promising. Using this simple method, I’ve seen job purposing initiatives include family members in a diversity awareness campaign, add a taco-bar lunch to financial literacy workshops offered by a bank and gamify a customer-facing effort to collect signatures to protect wildlands. All three re-energized the job purposing.

You get this idea. As a manager, you might call it continuous improvement, lean management or some other fancy name. Whatever the term, keep refining, upgrading and enhancing because there is no neutral. Your job purposing will either evolve or devolve.

2 Responses

  1. This is a terrific article, Bea! We’ll done.

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