Have you ever heard of the Limited Image Performance Syndrome? Probably not, because it was I who invented the phrase many years ago. It boils down to the convenient acronym: LIPS. I have written about it in more than one book, and I have lectured on it at many business conferences.
Put simply, it means that we all have an internal image of the level at which we can perform various enterprises. We have a strong motivation to live up to our standard, and, by the same token, not to exceed it.
I first observed it when I had the responsibility of directing training for one of the largest and most skilled sales forces in the country. It was divided into about 50 local branches, which gave me an opportunity to study how each branch manager set about motivating his team. Rewards of various kinds were important, but they were not the key. The difference in performance was much more directly linked to whether the manager had inculcated a sense of pride and high self-image among his sales people.
Self-image is formed in different ways. A recent study has shown that there is a genetic element, and that this inherited attitude is a good predictor of future performance – at least as good as intelligence scores. A second factor enters in the first few years of a child’s life. At this stage the child is discovering what sort of person he or she is. If the child experiences consistent love and caring over this time of crucial plastic formation, a good self-image is likely to become hard-wired. Recent work suggests that peer group experience at school is also very important.
These factors are innate but we are also aware that the level of our self-image can wax and wane. A good experience gives us confidence, which we then express in confident behaviour; conversely, a failure or a setback can cause our confidence to leak away. If you were watching Wimbledon tennis this year you may have noticed how confidence levels frequently changed, and how these were reflected in dexterity of performance.
But we are equally uncomfortable when we exceed the level of our self-image. A recent study, carried out by Northwestern University, provides evidence that, if we are particularly virtuous in one area of our lives, we may compensate by behaving badly in another, or at least refraining from the good we would otherwise do. Thus, it suggests, we regain the comfort of our own LIPS level.
So a fraudulent investment manager may undertake great and good public works and thereby restore his appropriate moral level. His vice and virtue cancel out. But, more relevantly, it indicates how those of high religious standing, even members of the priesthood, can indulge in evil practices. They do not do so in spite of their high calling but because of it. They are restoring their LIPS level.
There is much to think about here. We immediately face an apparent contradiction. We are taught to be humble, that we are miserable sinners, that any good we may achieve must be attributed to the grace of God. Our LIPS level should be rock-bottom. Then we remember that Christ declared himself to be humble and that he received everything from his Father. Yet he spoke as one with authority and emphasised that no one could approach the Father except through him. The claim: “I and the Father are one” does not suggest a low LIPS level to me.
I would approach this first by remembering that we are called to be perfect. Thus there is no upper limit for, no matter what we do, we will fall short. Next, we have to remember that we are always worthwhile because, however unsatisfactory and sinful we may be, God loves us and continues to search us out. So that is the basis for high self-esteem.
Then I look at the paradox of grace. Every movement we make towards God is wholly achieved through grace, yet our choices are truly ours and we truly become holy people. Grace is not a whitewash; it works not from outside us but from within us. Solve that, if you can, or – like me – just accept it. Thus whatever spiritual progress we make should be a source of self-esteem. In this way we are able to achieve a high self-esteem, while remaining humble in our acknowledgement that it comes from God. And there in no upper limit.
How would such theological reflection express itself in practice? I maintain that the traditional daily examination of conscience (which does not appear to have been updated since the Middle Ages) is fundamentally flawed. Rightly, we search out our faults, are contrite, and resolve to do better. But we can omit reflection on the good things we have done, the small advances in virtue we have made.
This reflection is important because, although we must thank God for the grace we needed, we have actually become holier thereby. Our all important LIPS can rise to a higher level, inspiring us to live up to our higher standards. John Paul II taught that virtuous behaviour leads in turn to greater virtue, but surely this is more difficult if we do not reflect on such progress as we have made.
But care is needed. All examination of conscience must take place under the auspices of the Holy Spirit. Only then can we hope that our insights may be realistic and sincere. In testing them our ultimate criterion must be St Paul’s teaching that even the most extreme of good works are nothing unless they are sourced in love.