Everybody has needs.
“Need” is quite a hard word to define, so I’m not going to
attempt to define it. Instead, here are some examples of needs (copied from here):
to know and be known
to see and be seen
to understand and
celebration of life
Here are some more examples of needs (copied from here):
- Adequate nutritious food and water
- Adequate protective housing
- A safe work environment
- A supply of clothing
- A safe physical environment
- Appropriate health care
- Security in childhood
- Meaningful primary relations with others
- Physical security
- Economic security
- Safe birth control and child-bearing
- Appropriate basic and cross-cultural education.
I’m hoping that this is sufficient to explain what I mean by “needs”.
What happens when people don’t have their needs fulfilled? I’m going to assert that when this happens, it prevents the person “from endeavouring to attain their vision of what is good, regardless of what exactly that may be” – in other words, they can’t bring forward the best versions of themselves if they have many needs that aren’t being fulfilled. I’m not going to rigorously justify this assertion; all I’ll say is that this view is consistent with current academic thought on needs.
I think it would be nice if everybody worked in an environment where everybody was able to have their needs met pretty much all of the time. I speculate that the vast, vast majority of workplaces do not achieve this – why? One possible answer is the following: “unfortunately, there are lots of mean people in the world, who aren’t willing to accommodate the needs of other people. Most workplaces have some mean people. If you had a workplace where the vast majority of people were nice, it would be easy to achieve this. When people’s needs aren’t being met, they’d ask for what they need. The people, being nice, would go out of their way to accommodate all reasonable needs others ask for.”
I think that answer has some fatal flaws…
I’m just going to copy and paste three paragraphs from this blog:
There was a debate, in the late 1800s, about whether
“imagination” was simply a turn of phrase or a real phenomenon. That
is, can people actually create images in their minds which they see vividly, or
do they simply say “I saw it in my mind” as a metaphor for
considering what it looked like?
Upon hearing this, my response was “How the stars was this actually a real debate? Of course we have mental imagery. Anyone who doesn’t think we have mental imagery is either such a fanatical Behaviorist that she doubts the evidence of her own senses, or simply insane.” Unfortunately, the professor was able to parade a long list of famous people who denied mental imagery, including some leading scientists of the era. And this was all before Behaviorism even existed.
The debate was resolved by Francis Galton, a fascinating man who among other achievements invented eugenics, the “wisdom of crowds”, and standard deviation. Galton gave people some very detailed surveys, and found that some people did have mental imagery and others didn’t. The ones who did had simply assumed everyone did, and the ones who didn’t had simply assumed everyone didn’t, to the point of coming up with absurd justifications for why they were lying or misunderstanding the question. There was a wide spectrum of imaging ability, from about five percent of people with perfect eidetic imagery to three percent of people completely unable to form mental images.
It’s extraordinary how different people’s minds are – they can be so different that it’s almost incomprehensible. A consequence of this is that people’s needs might be so different from yours that it wouldn’t even occur to you that somebody could have that need.
A personal example – I’ve only recently come to accept that some people very much need to live and work in clean, tidy and neat environments. I think it’s fair to say that I am not a tidy person. Here’s an artist’s depiction of what my desk currently looks like (my room at home is similarly messy):
I mean, I understood on some abstract level that people sort-of preferred tidy environments, but I always imagined that it was a mild preference – I found it very confusing that they spent so much time organising things and tidying things, it struck me as a complete waste of time. It wasn’t until university that I properly got how necessary and uncompromising neatness was to some people (there were many arguments that led to tears…).
But it extends wider than this – here’s a question for you: What percentage of US high school students cheat on tests? What percentage have shoplifted? The answer is nobhg gjb guveqf unir purngrq naq nobhg bar guveq unir fubcyvsgrq (rot13ed so you have to actually take a guess first). I don’t know a single person from either school or my group of friends who has done either of those things, so the answer was shocking to me. The key idea is that it’s fallacious to believe that your own social circle is at least a little representative of society at large.
What’s the consequence of this? Our workplace has lots of people. Some of them will have needs that are so disjoint from how you view the world that it would literally never have crossed your mind that a particular thing could even be an issue! For example, we’re getting a new office fairly soon; an obvious design question is whether the office should be open plan or not. These (somewhat click-baity) articles (1 and 2) bring up some concerns about open plan offices that would literally never have occurred to me. Here’s a tweet as an example:
Oh my god, yes. A couple jobs ago, I was basically a zoo animal. Incessant staring and comments on my clothes, makeup, jewelry, conversations, personal habits, food, facial expressions, everything. One guy would even stare between the monitors all day and comment while I worked.
To summarize, the “typical-mind fallacy” basically means that loads of people are going to have needs that really strongly affect them, which would never occur to you. I fear that I’m not conveying exactly how pervasive the typical-mind fallacy is, so if you’re interested, I’d strongly encourage you to read at least one of these blog posts, all of which are excellent. (1, 2, 3 and 4)
Suppose you accept that the typical-mind fallacy is true, and therefore, we will often be unable to pre-empt people’s needs. One could argue that this isn’t a problem: “So, we may not be able to guess what people’s needs might be, but surely if somebody has a need that isn’t being met, and it’s important to them, they’ll speak up about it?” It would be nice if this were true. However, I strongly believe that this isn’t true.
A personal example – apparently I come across as confident generally, and apparently people definitely wouldn’t describe me as “shy”. One might therefore assume that I’d speak up if I had a need that was important to me that wasn’t being met. However, this assumption is in fact untrue – in the vast majority of scenarios, I’m terrible at communicating my needs. If I perceive that a need I have is in conflict with something that somebody else wants or needs, I’m overwhelmingly likely to just go with what the other person wants/needs.
A detailed investigation of why that’s bad, why I find it so difficult, and what one can do about it will have to be reserved for a later blog post, but here’s a short explanation of why: the secondary reason is due to the following – I don’t really have strong feelings, wants or desires the vast majority of the time. So generally, when I think that my needs are in conflict with somebody else’s needs/wants, I assume that my needs are less important than theirs (using some utilitarian pseudo-justification), and go with what they say. However, the primary reason why I’m so bad at it is very simple.
I find the idea fucking terrifying.
I have no idea how to convey the sense of dread that I can feel at the prospect of communicating my needs if I think it will make the other person upset or angry – I think it’s not dissimilar to the fear that many people feel when it comes to public speaking. The key point is that people may not genuinely communicate their needs, even if they’re very much in pain as a consequence of their need not being fulfilled.
(Note – I speculate that gender might be a significant factor in how likely people are to communicate their needs. This is based on the following excerpt from the book “Nonviolent Communication”:
In a world where we’re often judged harshly for identifying and revealing our needs, doing so can be very frightening. Women, in particular, are susceptible to criticism. For centuries, the image of the loving woman has been associated with sacrifice and the denial of one’s own needs to take care of others. Because women are socialized to view the caretaking of others as their highest duty, they often learn to ignore their own needs…
My mother was once at a workshop where other women were discussing how frightening it was to be expressing their needs. Suddenly she got up and left the room, and didn’t return for a long time. She finally reappeared, looking very pale. In the presence of the group, I asked, “Mother, are you all right?”
“Yes,” she answered, “but I just had a sudden realization that’s very hard for me to take in.”
“I’ve just become aware that for thirty-six years, I was angry with your father for not meeting my needs, and now I realize that I never once clearly told him what I needed.”
My mother’s revelation was accurate. Not one time, that I can remember, did she clearly express her needs to my father. She’d hint around and go through all kinds of convolutions, but never would she ask directly for what she needed.
So, I’ve spent a long time rambling about needs, and I promise there’s a purpose to it!
Currently, many companies are making a concerted effort to be more inclusive. Until recently, I didn’t have a good definition of what “inclusive” actually meant – but now I think I do.
I’m going to offer the following definition: an “inclusive environment” is an environment in which:
- People feel comfortable expressing their needs and believe that their needs will be heard and understood.
- People will adapt the environment in order to help people meet their needs.
I like this definition because it allows me to draw some interesting conclusions. Firstly, I am confident in asserting that making the environment more inclusive will be beneficial for everyone, because people can bring forward the best versions of themselves when their needs are being fulfilled. Best versions of people = better company.
Secondly, and more importantly, I think it makes it clearer that creating an inclusive environment is HARD. Like, really HARD. I think that everyone being nice isn’t even nearly sufficient to create an inclusive environment. The typical-mind fallacy means that many people will have needs that other people can’t even really conceive, let alone notice. Moreover, many people find it really, really scary bringing up needs, so won’t do it unless they feel safe doing it.
This sounds like a problem.
This final section isn’t “Here’s a bunch of answers and some exquisitely crafted justification to demonstrate that they’ll work” but is more “I have a couple of things that could be tried, and I’m very keen on other ideas/feedback”. So here goes:
Firstly, status meetings are a thing (a one-to-one chat with your manager where you talk about things, often related to project status). I think one could make a few tweaks to status meetings so that they’re a more effective environment for communicating needs:
- Every status meeting should have explicit time set out for each person in the meeting to communicate their needs, and this should be encouraged as standard practice in these meetings.
Secondly, what we would like in an ideal world is for everyone to have the following capabilities:
- The ability to effectively and directly communicate needs and requests
- The ability to respond empathetically and compassionately to needs and requests
Both these things are super hard. The book “Nonviolent communication” (NVC) (by Marshall Rosenberg) is basically an attempt to describe a framework that allows people to do those two things through effective communication. I’ve read it, and spent quite a lot of time thinking about it. I’m not entirely sold on everything that he says, but I think it’s worth investigating further. Something that exists is a NVC workshop, carried out by an experienced NVC practitioner. It may be worth running a trial session within a company.
Here are some suggestions – I’d love to hear your thoughts on the suggestions, and I’d also love to hear if you have other suggestions of your own.