Viktor Frankel pointed us in the direction of the concept that “human beings are meaning making machines”. One of the peculiar traits of human beings is their capacity to create meaning, to find the narrative that links separate things together. It is one of the evolutionary traits that allow humans to organise themselves into social groups. Human individuals unite behind a common idea, creating order and a social construct through which they can interpret the world. The idea, something that starts in the mind of a single human being, is in turn built on by others until it gains some degree of reality or permanence.
This is what Richard Dawkins described as a meme – an idea whose symbolic meaning is passed from human to human, a way of building cultures or concepts that are passed from one generation to the next.
In this way ideas become concrete, the idea or concept gains enough permanence to then be unquestioned. The meaning or narrative becomes a stabilising factor. Rather than questioning its existence or operating in isolation the idea provides structure and reassurance, something for individuals to unite behind, something that provides them with a sense of belonging and security.
There are very few universal narratives, the world is organised through a multitude of different beliefs, philosophes, or ideas that people align behind. A shared belief unites a community. A tribal sense of belonging creates a sense of them and us, aligned behind a particular narrative: we believe this idea, they believe that idea.
This could be seen in any community big or small: friendship groups, football team allegiance, organisations, religions or national boundaries. What unites people is a sense of a shared identity built on a shared story. The lines on a global map don’t exist other than within the shared imagination of the human population; a pet dog would certainly not recognise any difference as it passed through a border between one nation state and another. The alignment behind an idea or narrative is a uniquely human condition.
These stories or narratives are helpful on a psychological level, they help provide an identity, a sense of belonging and the opportunity to be part of something bigger than the individual themselves. They can help provide motivation, galvanising a group of people behind an idea or a cause. At one level the healthy rivalry between different groups can be mutually beneficial. The questions or challenges help provide the checks and balances for ideas to evolve and where possible, with mutual respect and recognition, to grow together. In other cases, these rivalries can become destructive as people protect or fight for their particular version of the truth.
At its best, this unification and alignment behind social constructs has made the human population successful. It is easy to look and find where these behaviours have been disruptive but taken as a whole, it is possible to see the phenomenal success of the human species in its capacity to survive in almost every corner of the planet and potentially beyond.
To understand how humans have been successful as a species, and to explore how this understanding can be used to build new organisations and collaborations it is useful to look at the building blocks for any community: the individual.
It is difficult to separate the individual from the group but this symbiotic relationship between the individual and their tribe is the foundation for understanding leadership and how to create prosperous groups or organisations.
An exploration of the work of Robert Dilts helps see how individual identity supports beliefs. The beliefs in turn support the skills and behaviours that allow the individual to successfully operate within their chosen environment. And of course, the feedback loop exists from a Darwinian perspective that recognises how, to be successful, behaviour, skills and beliefs are adapted based on the environment the individual finds themselves in.
This bottom-up and top-down approach is at the heart of any symbiotic relationship. Success occurs when there is alignment between the individual and the environment. When the individual can survive, thrive and achieve their own ambitions within the cause, mission and safety of the wider community.
Using Abraham Maslow’s work as another lens to view this from: when an individual feels safe, secure and has their belonging needs met within an environment there’s a chance for individual development as they and contribute to something bigger than themselves. In so doing, the individual discovers the magic of self-actualisation within the context of their own environment.
For an individual looking to find a better understanding of the sense of self, exploring questions such as:
What are my individual needs?
What are the beliefs I want to hold onto?
Which are the values that guide my life?
These questions can help explore Dilt’s version of identity, beliefs and values. To explore how these thoughts drive skills and behaviours these additional questions can be helpful:
How can these values and beliefs manifest in my day to day behaviours?
How would I act if I did so in accordance with those things at the heart of the person I identify with?
How can I make my actions congruent with my belief and ambitions?
By taking ownership of this type of inquiry an individual can begin to take greater responsibility for their actions and live a more genuine or authentic life. From there they can seek like-minded individuals, or search for existing communities in which to grow and evolve. By remaining open to challenge the individual adapts and evolves. Incorporating new and emerging truths that appear as their perspective is shifted.
The aim for the individual is to find alignment within communities and organisations where they can be accepted, feel a sense of belonging, contribute and grow together.
For a leader or someone who wants who wants to shape the environment in which individuals can thrive, this is about building a compelling narrative that attracts followership. It is about tapping into the shared beliefs of the individuals and creating a story that is powerful enough to provide unity.
The mission or objectives of the community or organisation need to be strong enough to provide direction, to provide sufficient meaning that helps create psychological safety and security. The narrative provides something to get behind and helps remove uncertainty and doubt. The best stories build a sense of faith or belief that this particular community or environment will nurture and support the individual through whatever challenges occur in the future.
The story itself is not enough, as a leader it is also vital that systems and procedures are designed that support and perpetuate the mission or the cause. Policies and guiding principles should provide clarity and simplicity so that it is easy to see how they contribute and fulfil the wider narrative.
It is the interaction between the individual and organisation that creates the opportunity for this symbiotic relationship: the individual needs the organisation, and the organisation needs the individual.
Ken Wilber’s work shows that when there is harmony, congruence and alignment then there is both stability and the opportunity for growth. Growth of both the individual and the community.
There are many examples when we see the creation of these communities, organisations or environments which become self-perpetuating and their success grows and grows.
We see this in the Olympics: individual ambition to succeed, to be their best is provided within the Olympic motto of “faster, higher, stronger”. Individual athletes conform to the rules and guidelines laid down by the organisation and the Olympic movement evolves from generation to generation. Athletes need the Olympics: the Olympics needs the athletes.
Whenever we see people willing to make sacrifices to succeed, we can look closer to see how these sacrifices are made in the cause of something bigger than themselves: from the Olympics to monasteries, from Bake Off to Strictly.
The individual is able to self-actualise, to become the best version of themselves with an environment where they feel a sense of belonging and alignment with something that transcends their sense of self.
To get the best from ‘meaning making machines’ leaders should be encouraged to explore how best to create narratives that are powerful enough to bring people together into communities where they feel safe and see clear access to achieving their individual ambitions.