Meaning, Power, and Propensities: Elevating Human System Performance

“…The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility. Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better…and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed—be it ecological, social, demographic or a general breakdown of civilization—will be unavoidable.”

Vaclav Havel (in an address to the U.S. Congress, 1990)


We tend to think of our preferred behaviors as strengths; an important part of what makes us uniquely who we are in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. We use our strengths to navigate life’s many opportunities and challenges “our way”. And we deem stronger as better because the stronger the behavioral preference, the more powerful the impulse behind it, the greater the capacity contained within it, and the more masterful the performance made possible by it. Much like the difference between being able to tap a beat and playing a drum set, a strong behavioral preference gives us degrees of freedom and ranges of self-expression that open-up life and put success in our grasp.

When behavioral strengths inside a single individual are aligned and well integrated, they create personality dynamics that support wellbeing on every level. The person feels alive and energized. And when they are misaligned, the person experiences different forms of distress.

Similarly, when individuals engaging with one another have behavioral preferences that align and harmonize, the parties feel connected and enlivened, and when they are opposite, relational stress easily arises.

The type, direction, and strength of two peoples’ behavioral preferences have significant and somewhat predictable implications for the resulting interpersonal dynamics:

  • If person A has a stronger preference in a particular direction than person B, person B can move along with them and experience the elevation that comes from combined power; they can try to resist person A’s momentum and feel stressed, fatigued and eventually over-powered by person A. Of course, they can be rebuffed by person A, or disconnect from them entirely.  

  • If the shoe is on the other foot, and person B has the stronger behavioral preference, person B can choose to share their power and elevate the experience of person A, they can withhold their power, or they can use their power to control or disengage person A.

Whether the social dynamics created are generative or destructive depends a lot on the level of consciousness and conscience brought to bear by the more powerful party. Conscious awareness allows the person to exercise discernment about their level of impact, while conscience informs the level of care they understand to exercise to avoid harmful impacts.

Of course, recognizing when a behavioral strength is likely to have a detrimental impact isn’t so easy because personal meaning systems also play a role. Personal meaning systems inform the types and levels of personal agency that individuals believe are legitimate to exercise. Being the product of natural behavioral strengths and social conditioning, they serve as a constructed blueprint for how a person believes they should reason, relate, and respond in different situations to be seen as socially acceptable and successful. To the extent that a personal meaning system is based in win-lose or even lose-lose thinking, it is more likely to drive destructive actions, making harmful impacts almost inevitable.

So why is this important? Predictive behavioral analytics have opened the door on a new way of understanding and leveraging the power of behavioral preferences. They are making it possible to anticipate inter-personal dynamics with high degrees of precision, opening the door on designing higher order units of productivity. This is good news for increasing individual, team and organizational performance. It is also encouraging at a time when new levels of ingenuity and concerted collective action are needed to turn the corner economically and ecologically world-wide. But, learning to work with aggregate propensity information in the context of prevailing meaning systems is key to ensuring constructive use.

Let’s explain by way of an analogy - there was a time when human beings did not conceive of nuclear energy but marveled at the power of the sun. Then Albert Einstein hypothesized that mass could be changed into energy and exploration of nuclear fission and fusion ensued. A short time later Enrico Fermi built the first nuclear reactor paving the way for modern-day nuclear programs to harness the power of nuclear chain reactions. Ensuring peaceful use of nuclear technology is now a global concern.

If that analogy does not suffice – consider the emergence of the internet and social media. These tools have clearly opened-up new worlds of connectivity, sharing, and commerce within a very short timeframe. Ensuring constructive use of massive personal data stores is now a global concern.

The same will be true about the emergence of predictive behavioral analytics. These tools are beginning to unleash career potential and paving the way to greater team, leadership, and organizational performance. Consciousness care will be needed to ensure constructive use.