There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.

Simon Sinek

I just re-read Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why, originally published in 2009. Good books are always able to meet you where you are and bring fresh perspective where and when you need them. Sinek has since converted the early success of his book and thinking into a business centered on inspiring people to inspire others. From TED talks to classes, speaking, and consulting, his message clearly found its audience and continues to resonate 13 years later.

The Central Theme

The central theme of Sinek’s book is that, in order to build long-term loyalty, we need to start with WHY. What is WHY? “WHY is our purpose, cause, or belief.” Most companies focus on WHAT they do rather than the WHY behind it. The book proceeds to make its case by using examples of famous brands like Apple who have built cult-like followings by remaining true to their WHY. When our WHAT and HOW reflect our WHY, trust is built and loyalty follows.

A key component of Sinek’s argument centers on the biology of how we make decisions. In short: as much as we’d like to think we are making decisions based on rational analysis, Sinek argues that most decisions are made on “gut feelings” which happen in the limbic portion of our brain; that part of the brain where feelings, like trust and loyalty, originate. In contrast, the neocortex controls our rational thought and language – this is where we evaluate the WHAT’s of the world.

Because there is no language in the limbic brain, we have difficulty putting words to feelings, making it difficult to explain our decisions: “It felt right.” The bottom line: even though we rationalize decisions with facts and data, those decisions were actually made in the feeling limbic brain – the place where we connect with WHY.

So What?

Curiously, when I picked up Sinek’s book, now over ten years later, I really didn’t remember his central points and remembered it more as call to figure out your WHY. Of course our “why” is important, right? The book spends a lot of time contrasting how most companies work to influence customer behavior through incentives or fear, practices Sinek buckets as “manipulations.” Though these tactics are often effective in the near-term, they eventually break-down, failing to build loyalty. Why? Because loyalty comes from trust and trust can only be built and maintained when our HOW and our WHAT align with our WHY.

Sinek’s points are interesting from a customer perspective but also have significant implications for any of our relationships. The same principles hold true for the people we hire, the partners with whom we work, and even the relationships we build outside of our work environment. How so? Because trust and loyalty stem from shared beliefs. Others must buy-in to our WHY before they can trust us and trust can’t happen until we’ve shown them that we live according to our WHY.

Our Data-Driven World

Throughout the pandemic, “follow the science” has been a rallying cry for any number of fact or data-driven calls to action. The expression is profound because it reflects our embrace of fact-based argument. We seek to convince others with logic and data which we use as proof of a correct answer. Proving the rightness of our decision, position, or conclusion has become a full-time job for many of us whether we’re in healthcare, politics, academia, research, or even religion. Unless we’re poets or artists, we almost always lead with the rational argument. Even when we can’t demonstrate something conclusively, we make our case as strongly as possible using cold, clear, irrefutable, logic.

And yet, people behave “irrationally” all the time. A person refuses to get the COVID vaccine so we conclude they don’t have the facts and double-down on our logical argument. Someone is looking to buy a car and the salesperson presents his product’s better gas mileage, maintenance costs, and price, still we buy a different vehicle. Start looking around at decisions that are being made and Sinek’s argument starts to make sense. We are going with our “gut” far more often than not. Yeah, we want to see the specs, know the numbers, get the facts, but perhaps these are often more useful to us in supporting a decision we’ve already made.

The Implications

The subtitle to “Start With Why” is “How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.” Sinek’s counter to the “manipulation” that many lead with in their efforts to to build their business is “inspiration.” How do we inspire? We inspire by aligning our WHAT and our HOW with our WHY. When others buy-in to our WHY and see us living it in what we do and say, the conditions are right for inspiration.

Considering Sinek’s point on inspiration, I was reminded of a call I received in December. During the Christmas Season, we sent out some gift packages to clients. They included a few items, branded and non-branded, as well as a card explaining how each item related to our guiding principles, our WHY. On the phone was a client who had received the package. “Thank you,” she said, “The gift box was sooo Northwind.”

I’ve thought often of that phone call – it’s the kind we all love to get. However, it wasn’t until finishing Sinek’s book that it clicked for me. Most of us who offer products and services to any kind of customer likely believe that people are buying because of the incredible value we are providing. When asked why someone buys, we’ll point to the money we help save, the results of our programs, our amazing project management, our great customer service, and any of a long list of strong value points in our product or service. These are all important things and likely a part of any buying decision. But in a world of limitless options, where almost everyone is making the same claims, why chose one over the other? That client of ours may deeply appreciate the value we bring, but she chooses us because she buys-into our WHY.

What if people are choosing you, or not choosing you, because of your WHY or lack of one? As we consider how we sell, hire, retain, lead, develop, interview, persuade, and generally engage with the human beings around us, what might be the implications of how we are living or not living our own WHY?

What Do You Believe?

“Start With Why” offers a philosophy, approach, and examples but stops short of trying to help you frame your own WHY. The unwritten message: you already know. As an individual or an organization, you are living it, intentionally or not. You are communicating it, intentionally or not. Our gut reads on people and situations come from our own WHY and how we see the WHY of the other. Every day, we are choosing and not choosing based on what we see, hear, and feel in our interactions, in the messaging we receive, and in the behavior we observe.

Take a moment this week and try to capture the essence of your WHY by writing it down. You’ll likely experience the difficulty of finding the words to describe it. That’s ok, work at it a bit. Then, think of some of the brands you prefer or people who move you and see if you can capture some of their WHY, asking yourself, why do I prefer them? What about some that you don’t prefer? Why not?

What do you believe? What is your WHY? Perhaps some of our choices are less logical than we thought.

  • Jerry Berry

    Interesting piece Phillip, I think it will be fun digesting this on several levels. Sounds like I probably need to pick up the book.

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