January 5, 2015
word of the year

Conation: The Word of 2015

How words lose their luster boggles the mind.

At least it boggles my mind.

spirit1 Conation is one of those words and it just so happens to be my Word of 2015.

Back in the 18th century, German academics began classifying the ‘self’ — to be specific, the ‘mind’ — into what is known as the tripartite classification of mental activities.

Ok maybe now we know why some words lose their luster.

In the 19th century, American and British psychologists took the classification and began utilizing it in their own research, as well as with their patient work. They improved the original work and further honed the tripartite.

The three bits to the classification include cognition, affection, and conation. (Editor’s Note: even as I type conation, swirly red lines can be found underneath the word be it on a Mac or a PC, so even the ‘machine’ has no idea what it means.)

Cognition, as you know, deals with the “what“. It’s when we interpret, process and understand the gazillion number of data points and information strands that enter our mind each day.

Affection is more about the “how“. Think of it as whether you like someone (or something) or perhaps you don’t. Affection is whether you are attached to an idea, issue, person … or you’re not. (E.g. I possess a love affection for Denise)

But conation … the alleged ugly stepchild to the tripartite (it a candidate for Word of the Year in 2016) is arguably a word Simon Sinek might enjoy. It’s about the “why“. Conation comes from the Latin ‘conatus‘ or ‘conationem‘ and is defined as “any natural tendency, impulse, or directed effort.”

These days Oxford Dictionary defines conation as:

“the mental faculty of purpose, desire, or will to perform an action; volition.”

At its core, conation is rather brilliant. It has the capability of taking the knowledge, data and ideas you interpret and process (cognition) and blend it with your emotions, likes and dislikes (affection) into behaviour, purpose and action. In my mind, conation is the missing link in today’s organization as we seek a better balance with power, profit and purpose.

Conation is an aspect of human behavior that motivates leaders to independently seek out and create a better society.

spirit2The societal data is everywhere. (what and cognition)

I believe the will of the human spirit to do ‘good’ remains pervasive. (how and affection)

What’s missing? If our organizations — and leadership in general — is to shift away from a fixation on profit and power while improving society, employee engagement and our communities, perhaps it’s conation that’s now required. (why and action)

Some argue that conation “has been a neglected dimension of behavior in neuropsychological assessment” and that it just may be “the missing link between cognitive ability and prediction of performance capabilities in everyday life.”

I believe it’s one of the missing elements of leadership, and thus the true definition of purpose in the organization. It is through this dogged action — volition, perhaps — where we might once and for all improve work, life and society together.

Conation is my word of the year for 2015.

It’s time for us all to become conative.

Man never made any material as resilient as the human spirit. Bernard Williams


5 Replies to “Conation: The Word of 2015”

  1. Since conation has to do with taking action isn’t that the antithesis of leadership? While delegation is taking action, it feels more passive than active to me.

    1. Hello Joanne. Ahhh, I see what you did there. Cheeky. In my books, leadership is all about ‘action’ (i.e. adding the conative state, after cognition and affection) but it’s a somewhat missing piece to the spectrum … particularly if you judge the results of various surveys, data points and research papers regarding employee morale, satisfaction and engagement. Let’s hope 2015 and beyond the majority of leaders shift to this way of being.

  2. Dan, what a brilliant word, and a concept I truly hope IS the concept of 2015. How much progress could be made by understanding the Why of the Self? There are precious few leaders with this much insight and self awareness.

    1. Hey there Allison, so nice to see you here. Thanks for dropping by.

      Yes, when I stumbled upon the tripartite a couple of years ago, I felt one of those ‘a ha’ moments overcome me. I knew I had to incorporate it somewhere, someday … and I actually mused about a doctoral thesis. Perhaps one day I’ll come back to it, but for now, conation is my ‘word of the year’. I agree, there are indeed precious few leaders with this sort of insight and self awareness, although many (unfortunately) believe they possess such a state. Alas, cognition (in my opinion) overtakes both affection and conation, which causes much of the issues in today’s leadership styles and organizational engagement levels. See you in 2015 hopefully.

  3. Hi Dan
    This is a really interesting and stimulating post that has left me thinking about the word and how you are interpreting it a great deal. I like the tripartite link and how the words fit together. I actually find it quite “ugly” from a linguistic point of view 🙂 Perhaps it’s the unfamiliarity of the sounds!
    You mention two definitions – one taking it’s root from the Latin and the other from the Oxford English Dictionary.
    What I am trying to understand is your link between the definitions and that of “an aspect of human behavior that motivates leaders to independently seek out and create a better society.”

    How have you determined that the purpose or action implied by “conation” will lead to something better?
    History tells us that that isn’t always the case – though I”m assuming it is the combination of cognition, and particularly the element of “affection” that may steer leaders on the right course? Used in isolation however couldn’t the implication be interpreted any way? Do purpose or volition always have a positive outcome if left alone?

    Thank you for a great post.

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