Choice Theory in the office

Choice Theory in the office

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A niece of mine worked in McDonalds during her holidays from university. I assumed in my, I suppose, snobbish way that the experience would be boring and unpleasant. Not at all, she said. She loved working there because of the great atmosphere among her co-workers. It was, she said, “fun”.

Fun, I think we can agree, meets a psychological desire for most of us – if you need convincing, look at the size of the entertainment industry.

We all know that the need to survive, to put food on the table and a roof over our heads, provides a strong motivator for going to work and that we meet that need through the money we earn from work.

But work, as the example above suggests, helps us to meet not only our basic survival need but our psychological needs too.

According to the psychological theory developed in the United States by Dr William Glasser, known as Choice Theory, we can group our psychological needs under four headings: belonging, power, fun and freedom. A good workplace helps us meet all of them.

At the most intense level, we meet our need for belonging in one-to-one relationships and in family settings. We also meet it by belonging to particular groups at work. If the company is too big to belong to, we belong in our section of the company or even in our little independent republic within that section. Some may derive their belonging, not from the company but from a particular craft or calling or from being members of a particular union. I suspect that those – in my opinion – heroes of commerce, salesmen and saleswomen have a sense of belonging among themselves which cuts across company loyalties. At the most basic level, people foster this sense of belonging by complaining about management’s total inability to manage! If you’re a manager, don’t let it bother you: it’s a bonding thing and you probably did it yourself.

And what of power? However much we may protest to the contrary, we all desire power, too, and there are loads of ways to get it at work. The notion of power, as Glasser defines it, doesn’t just apply to being able to give the orders or to competing and winning. A sense of achievement or “worthwhileness”, say from a job well done or an obstacle overcome, provides a shot of personal power. On the negative side, the person who designs a requisitions form so awkward that nothing can get requisitioned anymore could be on a little power trip – as can any of us when we are being a total, absolute and complete pain in the neck. Remember, we need power but that there are healthy and unhealthy ways of getting it.

Along with fun, belonging and power we have a psychological desire for freedom in the sense of independence or autonomy. The notion of designing work in such a way as to give employees a sense of freedom – through enabling them to make choices – is well-established. But people also get freedom by coming into work late, taking long lunches, refusing to fill in that new requisitions form, dressing flamboyantly and so on. Or it may be that the money you earn is financing a move towards a new career or living situation which also represents freedom to you. Some of those people who clean the office and who you may never see are, in my experience, likely to be working to get independence in their lives outside the workplace.

One way or another, your workplace is probably helping you to meet all these desires, effectively or ineffectively. Do people who trade in futures get a little power surge when the gamble works, do they bond by forwarding silly emails, do they have fun in the bar after work and do they get freedom by going around unshaven and unkempt at the weekend? You bet they do!

Look around you and you’ll see it everywhere in the workplace: the smokers all bonding in the smoking room, the office politician getting little surges of power out of planning and plotting, the fun brigade giggling in the canteen, that guy who’s good at his job so long as you leave him alone and let him do it his way.

And underpinning our continuous attempts to get power, fun, belonging and freedom into our lives, and to survive, is our ability to control, in sensible ways, ourselves and our environment.

The above article was published in Business & Finance, Dublin, on 10th April 2003

For information on Padraig O’Morain’s forthcoming mindfulness workshops (these are not necessarily linked to Choice Theory  but they are what I mainly do)  click here.