I just finished a book titled The Capitalist Philosophers by Andrea Gabor. One chapter focused on Elton Mayo who the author (partially) attributed the invention of corporate “human relations”. This was a great contrast to the very popular “scientific management” approach introduce by Frederick Taylor who took a very adversarial approach to the labor force. Unlike Taylor, Mayo believed that you shouldn’t just treat laborers as costs on the spreadsheet to be reduced, but that you should “make them feel needed”.
If you talk to a lot of shop floor employees, as I do, you’ve likely heard a fair number of them say something like “I’m just a number” or “I feel disposable” or simply “I don’t feel needed”. And there is good reason for this because if they have been in the job force for a decade or two, it is very likely that they have been a victim of a layoff, downsizing, or similar corporate cost-cutting event. If management’s perception of the problem is that their employees “don’t feel needed” then the logical solution is to make them feel needed. So, I did what a lot of managers would do in this situation. I Googled it. Results focused on employee engagement tips, employee retention tips, employee rewards programs, etc. There were multiple variations of top 10 or 15 ways to ensure employees feel valued/appreciated. Some of them might even make them feel needed.
“But is making them feel needed really the end goal?”, I thought. To me, this looked like a failure to establish root cause. I read on.
Later in the book, Gabor hinted that there was some evidence that Mayo was a bit manipulative in his efforts to “make them feel needed”. That is, employee suggestions were taken, but not taken seriously. Listening to the laborers wasn’t done to try to get valuable information, but rather to pacify them. Gabor contrasted this approach with that of Maslow and McGregor. Maslow brought us the concept of the Hierarchy of Needs and McGregor brought us Theory X and Theory Y. (If you don’t recognize these concepts, look them up!) They went one step further than Mayo and professed that management should “make them needed”.
Based on my own personal employment experiences, observations, and self-study, I’m in the Maslow/McGregor camp. Most employees don’t really want to feel needed; they want to be needed. They want to contribute. Further, they want to understand how they contribute. And frankly, the organization’s management should want these things too. Business owners and operators shouldn’t run a business with a bunch of people they don’t need and then try to figure out ways to make them feel needed so that they stick around. That makes no sense. Like it or not, your business is a social organism. It is a system with interdependent parts. Without people you don’t have a business. Don’t waste time trying to manipulate their feelings. It is self-defeating, not to mention unethical. Instead, give them the tools they need so that they can best contribute. If they truly are needed, then they will feel needed, and your business will be better for it.
Don’t make them feel needed,