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…on needs, greed and needy people

I confess: I find very needy people hard to deal with. They drain me. When I see that invisible Welcome to my Pity Party sign on their lapel I kinda go cold, because it means that I must tread very carefully — like trying to cross a tulip field without doing any damage.

Everyone, of course, has needs. Abraham Maslow famously suggested that we have a hierarchy of needs [1] and if the basic ones aren’t met, then we can’t move towards the higher goals. Someone who’s dying of hunger is unlikely to become an expert on the aesthetics of art. He argued that self–actualization was the ultimate and highest goal.

Like many great ideas, Maslow’s theory has been extensively researched and criticised, if not rubbished. Geert Hofstede [2], for instance, pointed out that people’s goals will vary according to the values of the society that people live in. Some more collectivist societies will promote less individualistic goals than ones like the US which encourages rampant self-expression, if not selfishness. My own thinking is that it’s far more complex than this: some people who lack all the basics actually are able to achieve some higher goals — I think about people doing development work in dreadful conditions in parts of Africa as an example — and a good many people I know whose fundamental needs are well catered for actually fail to go further and, in Maslow’s terms, self–actualise.

Maslow was right, I believe about this: when you feel you lack something, your attention is so tightly focussed on getting it that pretty much everything else gets neglected: addicts who neglect their children are an extreme but illustrative case in point.

But I think he was wrong in one important respect: some people’s needs are endless. Provide them with the basics and they will claim they need more. Give them their fair share of those extras and they want still more. Greed, rather than need, has become characteristic of many people. And greed, as we all know, has been built into our economic system at such a basic level that it’s the driver for consumerism, job ambition and a whole lot besides. After all, if you speak to some of those bankers who have been pilloried for taking huge bonuses while the rest of us suffer cutbacks and recession, they will tell you they feel entitled to their massive perks and they have indeed built lifestyles which need these 6-figure injections into their bank balances.

But there is another way, even living within the powerful influences of our society. Just as families can choose to set another agenda and parents can embody and promote a clear set of values — kindness, love, grace and forgiveness — so workplaces can resist the temptation to promote greed and selfishness. None of us can isolate ourselves entirely from the need agenda (we all have bills to pay and a retirement to prepare for!) but we can refuse to give in to its excesses. The old idea of noblesse oblige required wealthy and powerful people to set standards — although it’s arguable that they often failed to do so.

It seems to me that the best places to work buck the trend partly because they set their own agenda and promote values other than selfishness and greed. Being part of a company that delivers an excellent product or working in a nursing home where people are valued brings its own very powerful, if intangible reward. It’s about listening to and dancing to the beat of a different drum.

[1] Maslow, A. H., A Theory of Human Motivation, in Psychological Review 50(4) (1943):370-96 and Maslow, Abraham (1954). Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper

[2] Hofstede, G (1984). "The cultural relativity of the quality of life concept". Academy of Management Review 9 (3): 389–398

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