Making a difference

I occasionally listen to a podcast series called Life Habits. Recently I listened to an episode called Making a Difference. The podcast talked about the common theme of people stating that they are motivated by the idea of making a difference. I have been musing about whether this is actually correct.

The first thing that occurs to me is that I suspect people really don't actually want to "just" make a difference. I think that, more precisely, they want to make a positive difference. I also think that the thought experiment to prove this is fairly simple. Imagine killing someone. I hope that most people's first reaction is that this isn't the kind of difference they mean. But it is a way to make a very noticeable difference. This little experiment leads me to introduce a more subjective concept of making a positive difference. If the person that you killed was truly evil, then killing them could possibly be viewed as positive. That's a philosophical debate for another day though. They key point is that it's not just about making a difference. It has to include a more subjective assessment of the merits of that difference.

I don't think that introducing the apparently obvious idea that people want to make a positive impact is just about pedantry.
Is it enough to know inside of yourself that you did something? Probably in many cases it is. However, I think that the inclusion of this more subjective assessment increases the likelihood that what is really desired is to be seen to make a difference. The reason I think this is because it provides an external validation of whether your difference was positive.

Why does any of this matter. Because in my professional life I am responsible for managing people. Understanding motivation is important if I am to fulfil my obligations to help my team be effective and to achieve their potential as individuals. I am sure that the stated desire to make a difference is far from the complete story and that a more subtle understanding is required to really appreciate what is being said.