What Does it Take to Generate ‘Employee Engagement’? (Part II)

This post is the second one on a series of post that will deal with the human side of the enterprise and in particular ‘employee engagement’. Why? Because you cannot have a customer-centric organisation that ‘stages’ great customer experiences if you do not create the context that enables your people to show up as ‘being great with customers and enabling greatness with customers’. You can find the first post which introduced the ‘concept of persons’ here.

The idea is the absolute or why the ‘concept of persons’ is crucial

Let’s kick of the conversation with a quote from the Jose Ortega Y Gasset:

“.. the twelve hundred pages of Hegel‘s Logik are just the preparation that enables us to pronounce, in the fullness of its meaning, this sentence: “The idea is the absolute.” This sentence, so poor in appearance, has in reality an infinite meaning; and when one considers it as one should, the whole treasury of its significance bursts open suddenly and it illuminates for us at once the enormous perspective of the world…”

If this quote occurs as too philosophical for you then let me share the words of a respected management thinker with you. Here is what Herbert Simon says:

Nothing is more fundamental in setting our research agenda and informing our research methods than our view of the nature of human beings whose behaviours we are studying…. It makes a difference to research, but it also makes a difference to the design of… institutions”

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What is the dominant ‘concept of persons’ when it comes to organisations and institutions?

What is the organisational reality that pervades organisations of all kinds? Command and control is ubiquitous: in government, in public institutions, in businesses… – in organisations of all kinds. Look at your experience, not the rhetoric, and you will find that just about every organisation has managers who are conditioned to command (issue orders) and then do all that is necessary (control) to make sure that those orders are carried out. That is the very definition of a good manager – in practice, not in rhetoric.

What does this unconceal (if we leave aside the interpretation that some people love to exercise power over others) about the ‘concept of persons’? I say it unconceals the assumption that people cannot be trusted to figure out the right course of action nor to execute that course of action. Peeling the onion further, I say it unconceals a fundamental distrust of persons / gloomy picture of us as human beings. I call it the negative/diseased ‘concept of persons’. You could argue that this issue is related to the lack of competence – that people lack competence. It goes wider than that, let’s take a look at that.

What is the ‘concept of persons’ that economics takes for granted and propagates? Homo Economicus: the ‘concept of persons’ as rational self-interested maximisers. Put differently, people are selfish and act always to do what is best for this self interest irrespective of the impact of their actions on others.

Yet, this dominant ‘concept of persons’ is incomplete – we have yet to factor in Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs:

Maslow gave physiological and safety needs primary importance. In effect arguing that once we have achieved bodily well being, ensured our survival and accumulated the right property then and only then does the human being concentrate on the meaning of his/her life and spiritual well being.

So the dominant ‘concept of persons’ became and continues to be:

  1. people are intrinsically selfish so they will look out only for their personal self interest;
  2. people lack the competence to figure out what needs to be done; and
  3. people cannot be counted on to do what needs to be done as they are lazy and/or selfish (see 1 above).
  4. the way to get people to do what you want to do is through the right combination of fear (threaten their survival, belonging and self-esteem needs), reward (money and promotion), and training (to increase their competency).

Is the dominant ‘concept of persons’ in accordance with reality?

Leaving aside the issue of competence (which is easy to deal with) I wish to grapple with the ‘concept of persons’ as intrinsically selfish and whose primary needs are around bodily well being and survival.

The ultimatum game clearly shows that the human being is a social being who takes others into account – indeed he has to take others into account. Put differently, the ultimatum game vividly demonstrates that the human being is not only self-regarding – not just Homo Economicus! In the real world, the ‘concept of persons’ needs to envisage the person as self regarding AND other regarding AND process regarding. That is to say people as real human beings-in-the-world consider others (other regarding) and are acutely sensitive to process especially social processes that mediate relationships between peopleacting fairly, punishing cheaters, one good deed deserves another.…. And as such the ultimatum game should make us question that which economics, management theory and organisation practice takes for granted: the ‘concept of persons’ as Homo Economicus.

Now let’s take a look at Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. I say Maslow’s hierarchy is at best misleading and at worst wrong! I draw your attention to that which is so, the thing in itself, unclothed from theory:

  • people risk and/or give up their lives to save others including strangers; and
  • people destroy their bodies and/or kill themselves including people who ‘have it all’.

Let’s listen to Martin Seager (clinican, lecturer and advisor to the government on mental health) and what he says on the matter:

“The selfish gene theory cannot explain the majority of suicides, where no one else is protected. Nor can it explain the majority of human self-sacrifice which takes place for wider religious and political causes, rather than the protection of small families, groups or tribes who might share genetic material……

All of this means that Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy is, if anything, the wrong way around. Maslow argues that, once we have achieved bodily wellbeing, we can then concentrate on the meaning of our lives and our spiritual wellbeing. If this were true, then suicide would be almost unheard of; it would be a fundamental violation of the primary survival instinct. It is truer to say that if our mental and spiritual needs are not met then a mere physical existence is not enough for a species. Great physical hardship can be endured if there is a spiritual purpose, but without such a purpose a physical existence is often given up….

And finally

I say that the human being is a being who, at some point or another, is confronted with the question: “Is this all there is?” That is to say the human being is a being that has an built need to live a meaningful life (a life that matters) with others. And that includes an urge to sing his song – to put his natural self-expression into the world. I say the access to ‘employee engagement’ lies in creating the context that allows the employee to get access to his song, sing it, and does so in the service of a cause/stand that shows up as worthy as noble, as meaningful.

In the next post I will take a look at fundamental human needs and will bring in Maria Montessori to show what possibilities open up when one shifts one’s concept of the being of the human being. For those of you who have made it to the end of the post, I thank you for your listening to my speaking. And I invite you to share your experience, your perspective.

  Discuss This Article

Comments: 2

  • Doug McKee says:

    Recent work clearly demonstrates our species is actually genetically hardwired for altruistic, close nurturing relationships but we are not taught the skills necessary to do them well.

    A really good series showing why we have not progressed is the “The Century of the Self” which is available on youtube.

    Maslow failed to grasp a couple vital points. How do we define “needs” in a way that can empower us “to meet our needs?”

    From a process point, I define a need as “something that is essential to our survival.” I can only come up with three actual needs; Food, Shelter, and Nurturing.”
    Needs are processes we must do ourselves to fulfill our requirement for them. Someone can bring me food, but I must eat it. Someone may provide me shelter, but I must choose to come in out of the cold. Someone may stand in front of me but until I nurture, my need for that most vital of all human needs will be unfulfilled.

    A quick explanation. As a child, we know our parents provide us with food and shelter and they love us, so we conclude all our needs are met by something external to us and the rest of our lives we try to fulfill our needs by getting something from our external environment. Meeting our needs for food and shelter for most of us are so easy they are taken for granted. Where we really fail is that to fulfill our need for nurturing we must nurture, we must love.

  • maz iqbal says:

    Hello Doug

    Thanks for sharing and creating a conversation between us. You stimulate thought within me. I am particulary grateful to your pointer on the “Century of Self” that I did not know existed. I will make time to see it, grapple with it.

    Let’s take your definition of a need “something that is essential to our survival”. In the very act of defining this need you chose to rule some things in and some things out. Put differently, you have a specific concept of persons that drove you to define need this way. And even if you have do not have such a concept of persons, by defining need this way you have limited the concept of persons to “survival”. And as such I ask if you are not doing the same as that which you say Maslow did, failing to grasp vital points.

    I garden from time to time and I have noticed that there is disctinction – a huge one – between survival and flourishing. If I treat a plant in a specific way I can/do ensure that it survives. If I treat the same plant in a very different way it thrives, it flourishes, it unfolds, it blossoms in its full glory.

    Where might you arrive if you defined need as “that which is essential for a human being to disclose his fullest self, to flourish, to blossom”?

    And I also ask this question, how is it that there have been times that my life has been overflowing with food, shelter and an experience of being in relationship and being nurtured yet feeling/asking myself “Is this all there is? Why do I feel that something is missing? Why do I feel that I am not living the life that I was meant to live?”. I am pointing at man’s need for something more than mere survival, mere existence. I am pointing towards man’s need to life a life of meaning, a life of purpose, a life of self-expression. Put differently, how do you explain the showing up of “art” and its importance to human living? Have you seen the paintings in the Lascaux caves? If man’s existence and needs are simply about survival then why did this primitive hunter-gatherers make the time and effort to draw such beautiful/intricate drawings?

    And none of what I speak here is to be taken that I do not get the significance of nurturing. And the huge deficity in nurturing that leaves pretty much all of us with a primal wound.

    At your service and with my love

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