The Big Value Picture below shows the principles underpinning Tiny Triumph learning experiments. The pink component on the left shows that people create (and destroy) value for an organisation’s customers through their relationships and what they do together.
People create value for a business and its clients, providing services and creating products through their combined knowledge and what they do together. Technology enables them, but value is an outcome of their relationships and interactions.
The smallest unit of social interaction in organisations is between two people, who change each other. They constantly evolve as each adjusts what they know, think, and do in response to each other.
Business processes that create value for customers emerge from these dynamic social interactions. They generate patterns of outcomes over time.
This simple diagram depicts two people adapting in response to the influence they can exert on each other. Both are also interacting with other groups in their social environments. How they do that depends on their personal characteristics and self-perception.
Complexity in social systems is an outcome of people connecting, being inter-dependent, having diverse ways of seeing things, and adapting what they do and think in response to the each other.
We act on what we think we know, based on how we read social situations, but we cannot control the outcome.
We can look back at what we think has happened in a complex system, but cannot say with certainty what will happen in future.
The complexity in social situations increases the more people there are, the more diverse they are in how they think and see the world, and the more connected they are.
Complex On Our Own
Individual people are already complex. We adapt in a reciprocal way with our wider social environments – family, friends, professional, and personal networks. We can influence other people. They in turn can influence how we feel about ourselves, and what we believe we are capable of achieving.
For example, the extent to which we feel we belong can influence our sense of self. The social psychologist, Richard Ryan explains our need for relatedness as “feeling cared for, caring for others, feeling connected to others, having a sense of belonging, feeling that you matter to others, and that they matter to you”.
Power To, Or Power Over?
Another social psychologist, Albert Bandura, talks about personal characteristics influencing our sense of self-efficacy. If we believe we can do something, this is likely to be self-fulfilling. The opposite is true. Do we believe we have power to do something? Or do we allow something, or someone, have power over us?
We can assess the likelihood of what people might think and do but can’t be sure. Even with people we think we know well, work colleagues whose personalities and quirks are familiar to us, there’s still an element of unpredictability.
What we need from work depends on who we are, what motivates us, and what our expectations of work are at different points in our careers. Work is a disappointment for some of us. Perhaps we expect too much from it, or it might be that we are in a line of work because of expectations others had for us.
Even so, despite the fact that people have different and changing needs, there may be innate human needs – or if not innate, then widely shared.
One of these is the need for meaningful work, which can be a source of satisfaction and professional dignity. This isn’t necessarily associated with position or high-flying work – people can instead get reward from service or doing work that is meaningful to them.
A nurse once reminded me that one day we will all need someone like her to carry out the most intimate tasks for us. She said that she talks to patients while carrying out these procedures. She wants them to appreciate that this is a service she carries out willingly. Giving service to others gives meaning to her work.
In his popular book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink pays particular attention to the work of social psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, whose research partnership reaches back thirty years, saying their work reveals that:
“Human beings have an innate drive to be autonomous, self-determined and connected to one another.”
Pink says that ‘the science’ shows people are motivated by:
Just as not everyone wants meaningful work, so the urge for self-determination may be influenced by culture and context. After speaking to Russian executives about intrinsic motivation, one reminded me that seeking autonomy might not be what people want.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia faced more turmoil in 1997 when banks collapsed and many people lost and all they owned. What people needed in her view was security, stable society and strong leadership over individual self-determination.
Richard Ryan describes competence as mastery over things that are important to us. It is essential for wellness and feeling that we are effective. He points out that environments can have a big impact on how we experience competence and mastery.
Ryan’s research partner, Edward Deci, describes motivation as “energy for action”. He talks about how environments create conditions where people can develop mastery and competence.
He calls this “autonomy support” – trying to understand how others see a situation, supporting their explorations, encouraging them to have a go at doing something, having choice in what they want to do, and what they need to do it.
The evidence for the performance benefits of friendly, informal relationships goes back a long way, as far back as the 1920s and 1930s. Elton Mayo and Fritz Roethlisberger, two of the principle researchers of the Hawthorne Studies said that:
“Mental attitudes, proper supervision, and informal social relationships experienced in a group were key to productivity and job satisfaction.”
It’s Good To Talk
And here we are in the digital age finding the same thing using technology that tracks behaviour. In 2012, an article in the Harvard Business Review reported on how Sandy Pentland and his team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had collected data, via electronic badges, on how people communicate – “tone of voice, body language, whom they talked to and how much, and more”.
They found that “the best predictors of productivity were a team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings.” The article describes how the researchers recommended to management at a call centre looking to improve productivity that teams take their breaks together to allow them to socialise away from work.
What determines whether social relationships are supportive and creative, or emotionally damaging and destructive? How can we make sense of complex social contexts? Where are the power relationships and inter-connections among people? Who is influencing who? Is this coercive? If so, what what can be done about it?
We need to be able interpret relationship dynamics, using what we think we see to inform how we react in messy, emotionally-challenging, complex situations.
This has been a short review of what social psychologists tell us what people, in general, want psychologically, socially and emotionally from work.
How to achieve this with increasingly diverse, mobile and open workforces will challenge the skills and capabilities of everyone – people working in new ways, and those involved in creating conditions for them to be able to work and learn together.