- Some people have lives of purpose but cannot articulate what that purpose is.
- Others struggle with determining their purpose.
- A few know exactly what their lives are about.
- Many just live their lives as they unfold without thinking about purpose and possibilities.
60 years ago AT&T committed to a 20-year longitudinal study of its managers. In 1988 Ann Howard and Douglas Bray reported the results in the classic book Managerial Lives in Transition. One assessment was about purpose. Each manager had a 2-4 hour interview with a psychologist in which the manager just talked about life. The eminent psychologist Joseph Rychlak analyzed detailed notes from over 350 interviews. Rychlak (1982) identified nine major life themes that emerged in conversation, patterns that reflected priorities and interests. Here are those themes in my words (as I listed in an earlier blog):
- Occupational. People for whom work was the true center of their lives. They talked mainly about their work and getting ahead.
- Financial-acquisitive: People occupied with accumulating wealth, property and other possessions. People with this theme desired symbols of their success.
- Locale-residential: For some, where they lived was the key. They liked their city, their community, their part of the state. Living where they lived was what they wanted most.
- Service: People heavily involved in community activities (of a nonreligious nature), or serving the nation in the National Guard or Reserves.
- Ego-functional: Those mostly interested in self-development, such as pursuing more education, reading, physical activity, health.
- Religious-humanism: People engaged with their church, synagogue, mosque, or expressing humanistic values.
- Recreational-social: For some, enjoying their hobbies, going to movies, or socializing occupied their time. Work was a means to an end.
- Marital-familial: People talking mostly about their spouse, children, in-laws.
- Parental-familial: People talking mostly about their parents, siblings, old friends.
1. My guess is that you may be able to identify your dominant life theme or the life themes of others. My dad was born and raised in the Piedmont of North Carolina. After he came back from the Korean War, he was stationed briefly in Monterey, California. He was discharged and returned to the Tar Heel State. Decades later I visited Monterey while doing some consulting. I was overwhelmed with the beauty of Monterey Bay and Carmel. I called my father. “Dad, this place is so beautiful. Why didn’t you just settle here?” After a short pause, he answered: “I missed my home.” My dad could not leave the red dirt of the Piedmont.
2. While we probably have a dominant life theme if we look closely, life themes may vary across a lifetime. The person for whom the work is primary may find that over time family becomes most important.
3. Purpose and success are related. Howard and Bray found life themes were good predictors of the level managers would achieve over 20 years. Not surprisingly, those managers with the highest scores on the occupational life theme advanced fast and far. In the first several years the life theme differences among managers were small but around the fourth year, occupational life theme scores started to move apart. By year seven, the occupational life theme corresponded to the highest managerial level eventually to be attained. Those with the highest scores were headed to the senior levels whereas those with the lowest scores were destined to stay at first level managers. In many, if not most, organizations, those who “eat, live, and breathe their jobs” are more likely to rise to the top.
Adapted from Decoding the Workplace: 50 Keys to Understanding People in Organizations.
Bray, D. W., & Howard, A. (1988). Managerial lives in transition. New York: Guilford.
Christensen, C. M., Allworth, J., & Dillon, K. (2012). How will you measure your life?. New York: HarperCollins.
Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly eﬁective people. New York: Fireside.
Rychlak, J. F. (1982). Personality and life-style of young male managers: A logical learning theory analysis. Elsevier.
© John Ballard, PhD, 2016. All rights reserved.
"Decoding the Workplace: 50 Keys to Understanding People in Organizations is as informed and informative a read as it is thoughtful and thought-provoking. . . Decoding the Workplace should be considered critically important reading for anyone working in a corporate environment." —Midwest Book Review