From Poo To Unicorns – A Workplace Pyramid Scheme

how-the-us-planned-to-blow-up-the-moon-to-win-the-cold-warWhen a torrent sweeps a man against a boulder, you must expect him to scream, and you need not be surprised if the scream is sometimes a theory.
Robert Louis Stevenson

I wasn’t going to write a quick bio of Abraham Maslow for this post because he’s pretty much ubiquitous in management theory and neuroscience. However, an article in Gizmodo caught my eye today and, following on from the theme in Twenty Five, it is by no means certain that any of you lazy buggers has even read past the introductions and acknowledgements in any of the myriad books on leadership and management that refer to Maslow’s theories. So, because I’m lazy too, I’ll paraphrase Wikipedia (you can read the full entry here).
501091-System__Resources__Image-547132Maslow, who died in 1970 was an American psychologist and academic who is perhaps best known for his description of a hierarchy of needs, a theory of psychological health based on fulfilling certain innate human needs. The diagram below is how the hierarchy of needs is most commonly depicted, as a pyramid, although Maslow himself never used the pyramid to describe it.
One thing that I’ve always liked is simplicity. The pyramid version of Maslow’s hierarchy is elegant in its simplicity and affords the amateur workplace psychologist a great model for understanding the needs of people in organisations. However, I think it actually provides a pretty good guide for how best to design and order work and workplaces and what actions managers and leaders could take to get the best from their people and to do their best by them.

Here, then, is my attempt to put this into some semblance of order. I’m going to call it Maslow’s Hierarchy of Deeds.

Physiological needs
Everybody needs to poo. Even George Clooney. Air, water and food are fundamental to human health. Believe it or not, we even need all these things at work. I know there are people out there who never use the toilet at work. I also know there are those who sneak off for half an hour in trap two with a copy of the Racing Post mid-afternoon. You’ve got to cater for every eventuality. The environmentally conscious amongst you might even try and help save the planet while you’re getting your water. We’ve gone to great effort and expense figuring out how to get clean, safe drinking water to come out of taps in our homes and workplaces and yet still we persist with supplying bottled water. 9.1 billion gallons of the stuff was sold in 2011 alone. It takes three times the volume of water to manufacture one bottle of water than it does to fill it and 17 million barrels of oil each year are required just to produce all of those water bottles. Go find the folks in procurement and tell them to cancel the bottled water contract. Social and ethical mores mean that we can’t design work and workplaces to meet the procreative urge but we can easily provide a roof over their heads, warmth when it’s cold outside and cooler temperatures when it’s not. I believe you can still buy windows that open. What about leaders? Well, if you hold a position of responsibility and authority within an organisation and you aren’t meeting even the most basic of human needs you don’t need my advice. You need a lawyer.

We’re not just talking Health & Safety and trip hazards here, although this will certainly loom large in workplace design. It also covers Health & Wellbeing. I assume we’ve no desire to return to Victorian working conditions (although Apple seem quite comfortable with working conditions in manufacturing plants in China, the workers themselves less so), but it’s worth reminding ourselves how far we’ve come. This is an extract from P. Gaskell’s “ The Manufacturing Population of England” from 1833:
“ Any man who has stood at twelve o’clock at the single narrow door-way, which serves as the place of exit for the hands employed in the great cotton-mills, must acknowledge, that an uglier set of men and women, of boys and girls, taking them in the mass, it would be impossible to congregate in a smaller compass. Their complexion is sallow and pallid–with a peculiar flatness of feature, caused by the want of a proper quantity of adipose substance to cushion out the cheeks. Their stature low–the average height of four hundred men, measured at different times, and different places, being five feet six inches. Their limbs slender, and playing badly and ungracefully. A very general bowing of the legs. Great numbers of girls and women walking lamely or awkwardly, with raised chests and spinal flexures. Nearly all have flat feet, accompanied with a down-tread, differing very widely from the elasticity of action in the foot and ankle, attendant upon perfect formation. Hair thin and straight–many of the men having but little beard, and that in patches of a few hairs, much resembling its growth among the red men of America. A spiritless and dejected air, a sprawling and wide action of the legs, and an appearance, taken as a whole, giving the world but “little assurance of a man,” or if so, “most sadly cheated of his fair proportions…
…factory labour is a species of work, in some respects singularly unfitted for children. Cooped up in a heated atmosphere, debarred the necessary exercise, remaining in one position for a series of hours, one set or system of muscles alone called into activity, it cannot be wondered at–that its effects are injurious to the physical growth of a child. Where the bony system is still imperfect, the vertical position it is compelled to retain, influences its direction; the spinal column bends beneath the weight of the head, bulges out laterally, or is dragged forward by the weight of the parts composing the chest, the pelvis yields beneath the opposing pressure downwards, and the resistance given by the thigh-bones; its capacity is lessened, sometimes more and sometimes less; the legs curve, and the whole body loses height, in consequence of this general yielding and bending of its parts.”

Personal security is required and workplaces should be free from fear not just for one’s own physical safety but also free from fear of any kind. The dynamic inertia of most big organisations, the oil tanker effect, is by and large down to fear. We put “able to challenge the status quo” in role profiles when we are recruiting but discover that the CEO has a framed poster of Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt on his office wall when we have our guided tour on induction day. Our need for financial security means that we should also be able to expect a fair return for our labours and, as a minimum, a living wage. There’s some pretty sharp practices going around and the growing prevalence of zero hours contracts (the Shrodinger’s Cat of meaningful work) is undermining what small sense of security many people had been clinging to. In emerging economies work of any kind and the financial security it promises is such a strong and fundamental need that some people are prepared to travel from Nepal to Qatar to bring in money to provide for their families. The conditions in which they work so that 22 grown men can kick about an inflated pig’s bladder beggars belief in the 21st century. Their sense of love and belonging for their family is so strong that it has overridden all their other needs.

Love and Belonging
Now, before you run off to buy some aromatherapy candles and mood lighting, this isn’t actually about romance in the workplace. Underneath it all, this is really what we’re trying to discuss when we are going on about employee engagement. We all have a deep seated need to feel like we belong. To be part of something we can invest our energies in. If is to be believed, the relationship that many people have with their work suggests an abusive partner. A milder reading might be that for many people in the developed world, work is a necessary evil to be gotten over with as quickly and painlessly as possible. Why? Because creating the conditions for love and belonging at work is bloody hard. We’ve developed the habit of referring to people skills as “soft” skills. It’s the biggest oxymoron in the lexicon of workplace bullshittery. The people stuff is bloody hard. It’s so hard we either don’t bother trying and live with the turnover or we pay it lip service with fads and free donuts or corporately mandated fun. There are undoubtedly pockets of excellence out there and individuals striving to do great people stuff swimming against a tide of ennui, but they stand out like beacons in the gloaming. There’s a quote from JFK that beats anything I’ve yet seen on why it’s important to strive to do this hard people stuff:
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Love and belonging away from work come from family, friends and other loved ones. Stop a CFO or CEO in the street and ask them when they last surveyed their spouse or drinking buddies on the productivity of their relationship. They won’t be able to pull out a set of metrics and quantitative data and provide you with an answer. They’ll have an emotional ledger of love and belonging both given and received. You can’t measure everything that matters. You can’t put an ROI against playing with your kids on the beach or time down the pub with your friends or at the theatre with your other half.

I’m not a big one for motivational quotes but there is one (from Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s “The Worst Journey in the World”) that I really think sums up nicely how I feel about trying to search for ROI when it comes to people and love and belonging at work:
“And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, “What is the use?” For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.”

Here’s Wikipedia again: “Maslow noted two versions of esteem needs: a “lower” version and a “higher” version. The “lower” version of esteem is the need for respect from others. This may include a need for status, recognition, fame, prestige, and attention. The “higher” version manifests itself as the need for self-respect. For example, the person may have a need for strength, competence, mastery, self-confidence, independence, and freedom. This “higher” version takes precedence over the “lower” version because it relies on an inner competence established through experience.”

Are you a leader? Here’s something you can try. Say thanks and say why you appreciate their efforts. Mean it. Ask them how they are. Listen when they reply.

One of the greatest fears of the leader at work is the following scenario:
“Morning, Bob.”
“Morning, Boss.”
“How are you?”
“Well, actually I’ve been feeling a bit…”

And because the leader can’t overcome that fear it comes out in their behaviours such that Bob never feels he can offer anything other than “Fine. Thanks.” Asking might feel and look a bit like giving recognition. It’s only actually recognition if you don’t mind hearing the answer and committing to doing something with that knowledge.

We have a tendency to talk of managers and leaders as separate beings. In fact leadership can come from anyone at any level. What we can do for people in work is to create the space and opportunity for strength, competence, mastery, self-confidence, independence, and freedom to emerge. Fearful leaders don’t want a load of self-confident, independent and free folks roaming wild in the business. That’s their special sauce. It’s what got them on the LinkedIn Influencers list. It got them an admiring profile in Forbes. It’s what got the Porsche parked in the double garage at home.

We might deal with very basic types of esteem through workplace design. After all, now everyone wants to work in a funky, fun-filled building like Google’s HQ in Mountain View, CA? Right? Sure, all your friends will think that’s cool, but the higher versions of the esteem need can only come from other people and to what degree they enable them to develop. If people’s need for this stuff overrides the other more basic needs and you can’t provide it, they’ll walk.

Nobody you work with is going to buy you a unicorn. This bit is all down to you.



  1. Years ago when working in logistics I had a conversation with a warehouse team leader. The highlight of his week was a poo at work on Sunday, because he was paid double time to poo. He even volunteered to come to work on Sundays just for his double time poo.
    This probably says something about employee engagement….

  2. I’m a great fan of Fons Trompenaars work on reconciliation of apparently conflicting concepts (including the MBTI alternative which avoids the polarisation of the traditional format) I therefore propose that most of the issues you outline can be resolved by a poonicorn.

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