“Why am I the only one at work who gives a damn what happens here?”Jennifer asked me. I heard the desperation in this high tech marketing director’s voice. She called out with a fervent plea for help.
Jennifer went on to say, “It’s like the other people around me in my office are just going through the motions. Like sleepwalking. They don’t seem to get upset about anything. Not even when our newest software release goes out late! They also don’t have any qualms about leaving early. When we have a new product shipping in a week? That’s just wrong!”
But how about Jennifer’s biggest upset?
She summed it up. “I want to make a difference in this work. I chose to be in the tech industry, and specifically software, because I want to change lives. I want to make people’s lives easier and more enjoyable.”
Are you like Jennifer? Do you care about feeling like you’re making a difference in your work?
And then you wonder why other people don’t seem to share that feeling?
So, here’s the thing:
Not everyone is wired the same way.
We have diverse needs and motivations. Even when we work in the same company, or work on the same team.
For me, Abraham Maslow explained this best. Here’s what may be a refresher about his pyramid shape framework from college psychology classes. I’ve paired his framework with my own definitions of the type of work that people do to express each of the the needs at each level of the pyramid:
Job = Physical Needs
Maslow indicates that our most basic, fundamental needs are physical. We must have shelter, warmth, food, and drink. Fortunately, the people you work with almost certainly have their physical needs covered.
For me, I use the word “job” to describe what people are doing when they’re at work to “pay the bills.” The word “job” derives from the old German word “gobbe,” which means “a lump of coal,” and comes from a time when there was an occupation to count lumps of coal. Sounds pretty basic, right? So, to me, if you’re doing a “job,” you’re probably not too engaged.
When you look at Maslow’s hierarchy, you’ll see the most space devoted to this level, and the least dedicated to the top of his pyramid, the need for “Self Actualization.” So this helps to explain that as we move up the hierarchy, fewer and fewer people seek or attain this need.
Career = Safety Needs
Then, the next level up is our safety needs. We need security, structure, and stability. For all kinds of reasons having to do with their developmental years and the trials and traumas they’ve experienced in life, some of your co-workers are still working on safety needs.
For example, if a woman you work with grew up with an alcoholic father who was sporadic about going to work, she might lack structure in her life. In that case, she might want a manager who tells her what to do. She might look for the seemingly “safest” job, one where she can do mundane work and “not rock the boat.”
Working for safety and security needs makes some people go nuts. It’s too boring, repetitive, or meaningless. Yet, if your mindful of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues who are in a career with those attributes, perhaps they really appreciate the stability.
By the way, the word “career” comes from the old French word “carrier,” which means to “run around a track.” For some, it feels safer to keep going around that same track, doing the same old, same old.
Livelihood = Social Needs
One level up on Maslow’s Hierarchy is “social needs.” For some people, being in the workplace speaks most to their need for affiliation. They long to belong somewhere. These are the people who love having people around them. They might have a big M&M jar in their office or cubicle, so people come visit them. Or they might be in sales and love calling on their clients and taking them for lunches, dinners, and shows.
You can imagine that they crave a “livelihood” as being a “lively neighborhood.” Yes, a place where they feel they fit in, and they get to hang out with lively people with a similar outlook. Rather like wanting to be part of a tribe.
These people value the trust and acceptance that can come from being in a great company. And, because this desire for trusted companions is front and center for them, people who pursue what I would call a “livelihood,” get pretty bent out of shape, understandably, when politics and other forces bring negativity into work.
Passion = Esteem Needs
Almost — but not quite — at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy is the need for esteem. If you have this need, you are passionate about achieving one or more of these qualities: status, greater responsibility, a reputation, more respect, or enhanced confidence.
If you have passion about a topic, you’ve got a lot of energy around it. You very well may want to share that topic, idea, or perspective with others. Maybe you’re deeply steeped in creating and promoting eco-friendly products, like biodegradable cups. So you go to eco-friendly conferences, speak about eco-friendly cups, send out a zillion tweets about these environmentally-friendly cups, and you seek to build your name recognition in this field.
Over time, the accompanying power may make you seek to be more in the limelight. So for some, the nature of their passion-based work yearnings is very public.
However, for others, it’s a more internal journey, where they want their passion to evoke greater confidence within themselves.
Mission or Legacy = Self-Actualization Needs
Historically, only a small percentage of people actually attained Self-Actualization, or the fulfillment of their talents and potentialities. I happen to see this shifting, with more and more professionals confiding in me, “I’m less concerned about the money, compared to the meaning.”
When you are concerned with realizing your greatest potential, your work is steeped in meaning. And, over time, you begin to sense that you are doing you work to serve a mission (or a cause, or a purpose). Over even longer spans of time, you may even start to see a legacy you can leave — a perspective, a product, a way of being that outlives you.
So, What Does This All Mean for People Who Care About Doing Great Work?
You may start to see where you fit, at the moment, on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, when you apply the framework to work. Theoretically, we’re all climbing the pyramid. It’s just that some people are stuck at some lower stage.
If you’re in “Self Actualization” and living out a mission through your work, does that someone else in a career that’s all about “Safety and Security” is somehow “lower” than you?
This is not about a superiority complex. It’s about appreciating that we all strive for different things. What if you simply accepted that fact? Likewise, if someone is operating at a “higher” level on the pyramid, they’re not “better” than you. They just fulfilling different needs at this stage.
I invite you to “try on” the affirmation or mantra…
“Everyone I encounter at work (or anywhere in your life, really) is at the perfect place for him or herself right now.”
- If you allow yourself to deeply take that statement in, how might you behave differently towards the people you work with?
- And what if you believed this for yourself, too? How might you treat yourself differently?