Friday, December 26, 2003


Jack over at Wiki Wednesday has been asking “Why do at least 80% of employees around the world believe their organisations do not make good use of their talents?”

In a one-line answer, I reckon it’s because at least 80% of organisations fail to address their employees deepest needs. And to expand on that will take a few more lines…

We pay more attention to the welfare of animals in zoos than we do to the needs of people in organisations. At least zoos make a half-hearted attempt to provide an environment that will satisfy some of the basic physical and mental need of their animals. Budget, space and the requirement to show off their charges to a paying public may intervene to diminish the effectiveness of these attempts, but at least the intention is there. What do organisations do to identify and fulfil the needs of their employees?

I’ve quoted Maslow before in questions like this and I think his hierarchy of needs holds the key to this issue. Take a look at what a typical organisation provides in this context:

Physical needs – The lowest, most essential level. Without these, you die. OK so most organisations get this far at least. They don’t kill off many employees by withholding air, water, food – do they? Think again. It’s only in the last 100 years or less that that the concept of the employer’s duty of care to the health and safety of employees has come to the fore, and even now many companies only pay lip-service to this because the law demands it. [Later edit: If you think I exaggerate, take a look at this chilling reminder, from Dave Pollard]

Security – Job for life? Forget it. We’re all at risk from takeovers, offshoring, corporate restructuring – all fuelled by corporate greed which puts the profit of the financial stakeholders above all else.

Affiliation – There’s a new acronym that’s crept into the language of organisational dynamics lately. FIFO – Fit In or Fuck Off. The corporation defines who you must be in order to fit in. Sure, you can belong here – just have this face transplant, put aside your identity, become one of us. Is that the kind of belonging we need?

Esteem – Wear the company badge, brown your tongue, sing the corporate song, dance to the corporate music – do all these and we’ll love you, and you can be proud of what you’ve become.

Self Actualisation – Pardon?

I know that thus far I seem to be answering a different question to that which was asked. Jack asked about talents; I’ve been talking about needs. Well, I reckon the two are intimately bound together. If Abe Maslow was right about needs and his hierarchy does indeed represent something more than just an academic abstraction, then human talents will have evolved to fulfil those needs and we all have within ourselves not only the set of needs but also the means to fulfil those needs, and by ignoring our needs organisations remove from us the outlet for our most deeply held talents.

I once built a simple extension to my house, mostly with my own hands. I dug drains, built footings, laid blocks and mortar, cut timber for the roof. It was a deeply satisfying experience. Doing something men have done from the earliest days of civilisation – by the labour of my hands, building a secure shelter for myself and my family. The satisfaction I felt went beyond the simple achievement (I’m no builder!) – there was something deeply rooted in the human psyche that was fulfilled by this experience.

The same holds at the higher levels. Our talents exist to satisfy those core needs. But personal, human needs are irrelevant to organisations that are driven by financial motives. So it’s hardly surprising that employees feel that their talents are under-utilised, to the point that all they feel is a dull dissatisfaction, being hardly conscious any more of these talents that have remained largely unused and unappreciated for so long.

I used to think it was just a question of reshuffling the pack – that overall the world had a matching set of talents and jobs and it was just a matter of fitting the right people to the right jobs. What I failed to realise was that it is talents and needs that are matched, and it’s between needs and jobs that there’s a disconnect which can only be resolved by abandoning greed-driven structures and the values that drive them. A world driven by monetarism leads inexorably to corporate greed, the subjugation of individual need and the deep unease so many feel with the way the world is going. Building a society where talents are employed to meet fundamental human need is going to require a ground-up rethink of what matters most to all of us.

Back to current posts