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Beyond Definitions: Personal and Practical Interpretations Drive Our Behavior

In our day-to-day interactions, decision-making, and behaviors, it is often not the scientific definitions of terms that drive us but rather our personal interpretations of these terms. These interpretations are born from our experiences, informal readings, online searches, and even interactions with tools like ChatGPT. It is vital to understand that our individual understanding and interpretations of powerful constructs determine how we engage with them.

The Ways We Understand

  1. The Scientific Way: Rooted in research, theory, and evidence, this approach seeks to understand concepts based on rigorous academic study, aiming for an objective and pure understanding of the term.

  2. The Practical Way: Focused on achieving desired outcomes, this approach is guided by techniques, methods, and information that have proven effective in real-world applications. It prioritizes functionality and results over theoretical or traditional insights.

  3. The Pragmatic Way: A blend of the scientific and practical, this approach is adaptive, drawing upon formal knowledge when beneficial but remaining flexible enough to adjust based on real-world feedback and circumstances.

  4. The Common Sense Way: Derived from intuitive judgments and straightforward reasoning, this approach is shaped by shared societal norms and beliefs. It hinges on what seems “obvious” or “natural” within a cultural or societal context.

  5. The Personal Way: Anchored in individual experiences, emotions, and beliefs, this approach is a deeply personal interpretation of a concept, reflecting an individual’s unique journey, values, and perspectives.

Operationalizing Constructs: The Power of Personal Interpretation

Following our exploration of the diverse ways in which we understand the world around us, we now delve into the essence of operationalizing a concept. At its core, to operationalize a concept means to define it in terms that make it both measurable and observable. This act of interpretation and setting clear parameters is paramount as it directly influences our decisions, actions, and overall behavior. Often unbeknownst to us, we do have these operational definitions — born from our individual ways of understanding — and they determine the impact these concepts have on our lives.

As we navigate the realm of work and organizational dynamics, we’re frequently introduced to an array of terms, both novel and familiar. These terms, or concepts, encapsulate strategic imperatives crucial for achieving collective goals. But as we encounter them, it’s essential to introspect: What do these terms truly mean to each one of us? How are we operationalizing them? And, in understanding them, how do our interpretations shape our subsequent decisions and actions?

To make the point clearer, it’s worth providing some examples. I believe this will help to illustrate the message more effectively.

  • Leadership Effectiveness: Consider what leadership effectiveness means to you personally. What observables do you use as evidence of effective leadership, and how do you assess them? Are your actions and decisions in line with this understanding of effectiveness? If not, how are you addressing this gap? Furthermore, as a leader, are you facilitating your team to understand and act on this interpretation?

  • Psychological Safety: Reflect on your personal understanding of psychological safety. What observables or experiences do you use as evidence of psychological safety, and how do you assess them? Do you feel this safety in your current workplace? Leaders need to ponder upon their personal interpretation of psychological safety and also evaluate if they’re crafting a conducive environment for their teams based on this.

  • Accountability: Delve into your personal beliefs about and understanding of accountability. What observables do you use as evidence of accountability, and how do you assess them? What are you accountable for in your current role? What do you want to be accountable for?

  • Innovation: How do you define innovation at a personal level? What observables do you use as evidence of innovation, and how do you assess them? Do you want to be innovative based on this interpretation? Are you allowing this interpretation to drive your endeavors? Leaders, in addition, should think about whether they’re fostering a culture of innovation in line with their understanding.

  • Employee Engagement: What does it mean for you to be truly engaged in your work? What observables do you use as evidence of engagement, and how do you assess them? Leaders should also introspect if they’re facilitating an environment that aligns with their interpretation of employee engagement.

  • Agility, Digital Literacy, and other constructs also fall into this paradigm.

The list can go on, hence I talk about concepts of significance. The first step is to be aware of, and be intentional and deliberate in your operationalizing of concepts of significance. The next step is then to keep your operationalization pragmatic as described earlier.

The Dual Responsibility of Leaders

Leaders shoulder a twofold responsibility. First, they must be acutely aware of their personal operationalization of these constructs. Their actions, decisions, and behaviors are often a direct result of this understanding. Second, they must recognize their role in facilitating an environment where their teams can also form and act on their interpretations.

In essence, it’s not merely about knowing the scientific or academic definition. It’s about being deliberate and intentional with our personal definitions, acting on them, and as leaders, enabling our teams to do the same. This conscious and intentional approach to understanding and operationalizing constructs can be a significant driver for personal and organizational growth.

It’s pivotal for leaders, especially those in the educational and organizational development sectors, to encourage these introspections, as it not only promotes self-awareness but also fosters an environment where individuals are driven by intentionality rather than mere default behaviors.


If you’d like to have a conversation about this or anything else of mine you’ve seen or read that triggered your interest, please use the link below to find a time that works for you for us to have a conversation. I am looking forward to it.


This article incorporates text generated with the assistance of GPT, an advanced language model developed by OpenAI.

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