Is Engagement a Privilege or a Right?

This morning I was talking to a dear friend about his career prospects, his goals and interests, and the sort. He is legitimately phenomenal: intelligent, analytically gifted, self-motivated, and kind. He has his pick of jobs not because of graft or influence, but because he is generally interested and interesting, and has abilities that exceed the average.

He is simply above average. It is unsurprising that he would like to take a job which will stimulate and challenge him.

I was struck by the thought that is this something that every working person deserves (a “right”) or is it a nice-to-have (a “privilege”)?

Every time I have a question I go back to my building blocks. In this case, all of this feels very Maslow to me; Hierarchy of Needs anyone? Do you remember them? Summarized, lowest level to highest: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, self-actualization.

To crudely shape this over the work environment, I would submit this:

  • Physiological: An office environment where you have the tools you need to do your work, access to food and water (cafeteria, beverage station, or something nearby), and waste facilities
  • Safety: A regular paycheck per agreement, health insurance per legal requirements, a workspace that is either yours or shared with clearly agreed and accepted rules, and generally acceptable/polite relations between coworkers, subordinates, and managers
  • Love/Belonging: Working with team members you enjoy, the ability to have some choice in your teams and/or projects, ability to have and maintain strong personal relationships with team members or managers, a shared sense of purpose
  • Esteem: Awards, public praise for work and achievements, promotions, fringe benefits based on achievements (i.e., private office, extra vacation time, WFH privileges, etc.)
  • Self-actualization: Ability to: turn down work or projects if not interested without negative impact, to select team members on projects, personal working hours, flexibility on work location, to build on ideas and approaches with wide flexibility and support

 Note: The above is just to help shape a discussion, not to prove a theory. Therefore, I would ask you to view it in that light; I am certain there are things I have missed, things which are gray, and things which I may have placed in the wrong bucket, give up or down a level; please, your forbearance.

I think it is abundantly clear that every worker should be able to have their physiological and safety needs met. You should have the tools to do your job, the area to do so which also meets your basic physical needs, and the expectation that you are paid for what you do and there is a level of politeness in the doing of it (my manager or coworker is not my parent so it is not acceptable for him or her to yell at me).

But, once we get to the love/belonging and esteem area, do we perhaps get to the gray space between rights and privileges? Let’s try a few things on for size:

  1. Do I need to be friends with my coworkers as long as they do their job and don’t inhibit my ability to do my own? (e.g. I’m an analyst and he’s a developer, as long I deliver my specifications and he delivers his code to specification, do we need to get coffee together every day?)
  2. Do I need to care about the team / department / organizations overall goals as long as I do my job and don’t prevent those areas from meeting their goals? (e.g., I am an office manager in a non-profit, does it matter if I do or don’t believe in the goals of the organization?)
  3. Do I need an award for delivering all of my projects on-time for a two year period as long as I get paid appropriately? (I’m deliberately going to avoid the rabbit hole discussion of bonuses and incentive awards)
  4. Do I need to handpick all of my team members for a project because I happen to like/worked with them before despite the fact that all of the resources available or adequate and random selection has no impact on the end product?

I believe the answer to any of the four is possibly, very likely, a “no”’; nonetheless, they are nice-to-haves which can make the difference between being willing to get up and commute two hours a day versus only 30 minutes. Many of the jobs which do allow you to feel engaged, to be making work products you personally care about, and working with people you enjoy, can provide benefits which cannot be compensated or calculated in monetary terms.

So, engagement matters, it does, and I think it should be a goal of every team, every department, and every organization to have engaged, motivated employees. But, I think we should remember the difference between rights and privileges; the understanding of it is not insignificant.

What do you think? Rights, privileges, and employee engagement – how would you sort them out?

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