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What Maslow can teach us about reaching career potential

Novelist and poet Helen Humphreys likes to tell of the time she took a job at a gas station, where sitting in the booth she could read a book a day between serving customers. Was she engaged at work? Yes. Engaged in her work? Well, probably less so. Was she a whole person at work, fulfilling herself? She certainly was fulfilling an important dimension of her life with the reading, but even finding a job with that outlet still meant so many other elements that make up a full life were missing.

Much attention is focused these days on engagement at work, with an outpouring of articles and books and many companies surveying their employees to determine their level of engagement. But I'm jaundiced. For all the joy of being engaged in work, it seems to me that engagement's moment in the sun these days is being driven by corporate needs – if only employees were more engaged, productivity would rise and profits would increase.

For the 99 per cent of us who aren't senior-suite executives, I think the acid test is whether we are a whole person at work – fulfilling ourselves on many dimensions. And I have been wondering whether it is possible to develop some test or questionnaire to help us gauge how well we are doing on this front.

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It would seem to start with some of the higher-level needs on Abraham Maslow's classic hierarchy of needs: love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. We are social beings, and so one element of being a whole person at work involves collaborating with others. But more social interaction doesn't necessarily mean we are more fulfilled. For loners, that would be soul-destroying. We need the proper degree of social interaction and collaboration, for each of us.

Esteem, in the Maslow pyramid, carries two linked elements that are important to expressing ourselves fully at work. We want to achieve. We also want to win and hold the esteem of others through those achievements and the way we act.

Self-actualization is about achieving our potential at work. For me, it has always symbolized that work must be meaningful and involve helping others. But self-actualization might also include creativity and spontaneity.

That's starting to be a big bundle, but I don't think it yet covers the terrain. It misses power, authority and responsibility. We want to be able to exercise those at work, although each of us would differ on how much we need to be fulfilled.

Integrity is crucial to being a whole person at work. If we can't speak our minds or act in accordance with our consciences, we aren't going to feel like a whole person at work, unless dishonesty is our driving feature.

We have certain strengths that we bring to work, and we expect those to be exercised, if not stretched. Whether it's analytical thinking or artistic skills or mathematical wizardry, we expect an outlet for those parts of ourselves.

Work can be hectic, and many of us thrive on that. We prefer go-go-go jobs that never stop all day. On the other hand, some individuals ache for slow-paced jobs, which allow a relaxed metabolism and time for their minds to wander or take a deep dive into an issue.

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Flow may seem related to pace, but isn't the same concept. Most of us like to enter that zone first pinpointed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, where time seems to stop and we are totally absorbed in the task at hand, blissfully unaware of the world around us. Flow may arise in a quick-paced or slow-paced job. In his book Flourish earlier this year, positive psychology founder Martin Seligman noted that when in flow, we are not feeling happy or satisfied but are actually feeling nothing. It is only afterward that the positive feelings emerge, usually including a sense of fulfilment.

Not all of us want to be a whole person at work, of course. For some individuals, work is solely about the lower end of the Maslow Pyramid: Essentially gaining enough money to satisfy their physiological and money needs. Being a whole person for them comes outside of work. But in this knowledge-work era, it is possible for jobs to offer more.

Still, it's a long list I have developed: social fulfilment, achievement, esteem, meaning, creativity, spontaneity, power, authority, responsibility, integrity, strengths, pace, flow. What would you add to it? On a scale of 1 to 10, how would your current job rate?

Can any job meet all those dimensions? If not, does that mean we are not and cannot be whole people at work? Or is it a case of jobs, over time, meeting those needs, so as we are promoted or shift laterally in the organization, with luck, some of the dimensions that have been untapped come into play?

Those are worthwhile questions to ponder, and you may want to share your thoughts in the comment section.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager for The Globe and Mail's T.G.I.M. page, management book reviews on Wednesdays and this online work-life balance column on Fridays. He has also written a series of articles for The Globe called The Leadership Guru Interviews, which can be found on the Globe Careers leadership page.

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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