Work Need Not Be All Things to All People

All people, regardless of gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status, have six core needs. This is the conclusion that the Human Dynamics + Work Team at furniture design company, Herman Miller, came to. (Their mission is to "improve the human experience wherever people work, heal, learn and live.") The team looked at the last 80 years of research in the fields of psychology, sociology and anthropology to reach its findings. In a Forbes piece this week, Chris Cancialosi lists six core human needs for the modern workplace. This list seems to be an attempt at synthesizing Abraham Maslow's classical seven needs with the three needs Daniel Pink lists in Drive:

  1. Security: We desire health, safety, familiarity and competence.
  2. Status: We seek recognition of our contributions.
  3. Achievement: We strive for excellence and take pride in our accomplishments.
  4. Autonomy: We seek freedom in our actions and decisions.
  5. Purpose: We want to make a meaningful difference.
  6. Belonging: We want a meaningful connection with others.

I believe that business might be undermining people's need for autonomy by taking upon itself the onus of satisfying all of these needs. Some of these needs should be pursued and satisfied by individuals themselves but are seen to be the responsibility of business. Business can at best offer an environment where, provided there is a good culture and values fit, the individual can pursue the fulfillment of his or her needs at work.

Security: No business can or should offer an employee security. It is a promise that a business often cannot deliver. Security is not a reality for anyone, ever. We are fragile and cannot be sure that we will be alive or healthy tomorrow. We can't be sure that we will have a job next month. We don't even know what the weather will be like next week. Fragility is the condition of human reality. Security is a character trait within this reality. People are secure not because of their jobs or bank accounts. People are secure because of their beliefs, character, values and faith. None of these attributes can be provided by the work place.

Status: The need for recognition and status is something that a business absolutely can provide to contributive people. Recognition goes beyond financial reward; it often requires a manager or supervisor who is skilled at providing regular feedback and intangible recognition to employees who make a difference. When the reward system doesn't adequately discern between high and mediocre performers, the value of recognition as a satisfier of status diminishes. Flat-structured organizations with open office plans lack some of the traditional ways to show people they are growing in recognition and status. These organizations need to find other innovative ways to satisfy people's need for ongoing growth in these areas.

Achievement: If a business takes upon itself the responsibility of enabling people's achievement, then it isn't really their achievement at all. Achievement needs to be a driver of an individual's behavior in everything he or she does. A business can encourage achievement and recognize it. But sometimes people achieve despite their environments, not because of them. In fact, achievement despite a hostile environment is often the very highest level of achievement. Think of Nelson Mandela in prison or some of the early civil rights activists in the U.S. The conditions for achievement should not become the entitlement of employees; rather, they should be something employees themselves create.

Autonomy: Hmm … When a company pays employees and they use investors' capital, I am not sure how much autonomy they are entitled to have! A person who is truly driven by the need for autonomy will become an entrepreneur or a free agent. Employees choose to sacrifice a large degree of autonomy in return for a fixed wage and place to work.

Purpose: If people want to make a meaningful difference in the world, and they want to do this through their work, they need to choose to work for a company whose purpose they identify with and give that company and its customers all they can. While everyone wants and needs to be paid fairly for the work they do, their focus should be on service, not on reward. Purpose comes from service. It is an attitude, it is personal, it is deep. A company can and should have a purpose. Every individual has a purpose, whether or not they have discovered it. However, it is not the company's responsibility to give the individual a sense of purpose. Each person needs to discover his or her own purpose, and find the best ways to give it life and meaning.

Belonging: To some degree, the work environment can nourish a sense of belonging. But people's true sense of belonging should come from their families, communities and faith. It is not necessarily healthy for people to see their homes as places of duty which they leave every morning to go to the place they feel they really belong!

True, we all have six (or something like that) core needs. But it is our responsibility to satisfy them, not our employers'. Our employers can encourage or frustrate our pursuit of fulfillment, but they cannot and should not be the entities responsible for our own inner happiness.

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