Hugh Mackay is a psychologist, social researcher and novelist. He is the author of thirteen books, including six bestsellers. His latest book is What Makes Us Tick? The Ten Desires That Drive Us.
As one of Australia's leading social researchers, Hugh has spent most of his working life exploring why we do the things we do by listening to people talk about their dreams, their fears, their hopes, their disappointments and their passions.
In recognition of his pioneering work in social research, Hugh has been awarded honorary doctorates by Charles Sturt, Macquarie, NSW and Western Sydney universities. In 2004, he received the University of Sydney's alumni award for community service.
Hugh is an honorary professor of social science at the University of Wollongong, a former deputy chairman of the Australia Council, a former chairman of trustees of Sydney Grammar School, and was the inaugural chairman of the ACT government's Community Inclusion Board. He has been a newspaper columnist for over 25 years, and is a frequent guest on ABC radio.
Transcript Of Hugh's Amplify 11 Talk
Hugh Mackay - Amplify - June 2011
Perhaps the answer to the question, 'Why work?' seems too obvious - 'To earn a living, of course'. So let's refine the question a bit:
- Why do so many people work such ridiculously long hours?
- Why do people persist in working at jobs they don't like, or for which they're not particularly well suited?
- Why work if you don't need the money?
- Why are so many of us afraid of giving up work?
- And why do some of us positively love going to work?
'Why work?' is part of an even bigger question: Why do we do any of the things we do? And that's a question worth exploring because we so often seem puzzled by our own behaviour. In fact, one of the oddest questions we humans ever ask ourselves is this one: 'Why did I do that?' It's odd because we mostly seem to do things of our own volition, so why are we so often puzzled by our own behaviour - including our behaviour at work?
The central theme of my new book, What makes us tick? is that we shouldn't be surprised when we're surprised by our own behaviour - for two reasons. The first is that although we like to describe humans as rational creatures, the evidence for that is very thin indeed. In much of what we do - from falling in love to waging war - we look like the very opposite of rational creatures. So it seems to me we'd suffer fewer disappointments and frustrations, and the world would make more sense to us, if we were to accept that humans, by and large, are deeply irrational creatures, ruled more often by the heart than the head, but with careful training and discipline, capable of remarkable bursts of rationality. That's what should surprise us - that such irrational creatures, whose brains are more like glands than computers, can sometimes be so rational.
The other reason we shouldn't be amazed when our own behaviour puzzles us is that the motivations that drive us are extraordinarily complicated and subtle. It makes sense to think of any behaviour as the outcome not just of one drive, one desire, one motive, but the outcome of a dynamic interplay between all the desires that drive us. Much of the art of living lies in learning not only to identify these desires and understanding the interplay - perhaps even the contest - between them, but also in finding a way of bringing them into a manageable, harmonious relationship.
Quite apart from the idealistic, ethereal desires that drive some of us - the desire for truth or justice or beauty - and the basic bodily urges that ensure our survival as individuals and as a species - hunger, thirst, the need for sleep, shelter and sex - I believe there are ten primary social desires that drive us. I won't present them all here but I want to identify seven of the ten that are most capable of being satisfied by work and are, for many of us, more fully satisfied at work than elsewhere.
Although I have said that everything we do is the product of a mixture, a blend of several desires at once, there is one desire that is almost always present in the mix. In fact, I can't think of any behaviour where you would not find this particular desire struggling for expression. This is the desire to be taken seriously. That doesn't mean we desire to be regarded as 'serious'. It is all about the desire to be acknowledged as the unique individual each of us knows ourselves to be - the desire to be noticed, appreciated, valued, accepted ... perhaps even remembered.
We all need to know that someone is taking us seriously; that we aren't being ignored or forgotten.
Young people applying for work often say they send off dozens of applications and don't even receive an acknowledgement of their application. As one of them said to me, 'It's as if you don't exist'. The same occurs if you are kept waiting for too long in a doctor's surgery, without explanation or apology.
We live in a time of official apologies to various groups in Australia and around the world, such as the Australian Government's apology to members of the stolen generations and the Roman Catholic Church's apology to the Jews for its role in Nazi Germany. Some people are very sceptical about such apologies. What is the point, they ask, if you aren't going to do something about it? What is the value of an apology without compensation? In the early months of 2008 we saw the value, didn't we, in the outpouring of emotion, and not only from indigenous people but from around the country in response to the apology. Suddenly we all realised what it must feel like for a minority group to go from feeling marginalised and ignored to being on the agenda.
It is this desire that explains why all of us hate being the victims of racism or sexism or any other prejudice that simply lumps us in with a category, as if we ourselves have no unique identity. 'Oh, she's a single mother ... gay ... Presbyterian ... a Baby Boomer ...' we hate being labelled like that, because we feel we ourselves, as individuals, are not being taken seriously.
It's the desire to be taken seriously that explains why good listeners are so highly prized. When someone gives you their undivided attention, the clear message is: 'I am taking you seriously as a person'. It's also why counselling is generally so effective: although various schools of psychotherapy are sometimes at war with each other over philosophical and methodological differences, the truth is that they all work, to some extent, because the counselling relationship - the counselling model - says to the client: 'This is all about you. I am here to listen. I am taking you seriously.' And we all need to know that someone is - even if it's only a faithful dog that wags its tail reliably when you walk through the back door after a rough day.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, it is the desire to be taken seriously that explains why ethnic and religious minorities often thrive on persecution. They don't say, 'We've obviously got the wrong end of the stick - let's give this up'. No: their faith is strengthened - their sense of ethnic identity is reinforced - under the influence of persecution, because indifference is the real enemy. Even if you are someone's target, that can, of itself, make you realise you are being taken seriously.
So the way we listen to each other, the way we respect each other's passions (even if we don't share them), the way we respond to each other's needs, the way we make - or don't make - time for each other, even the way we make love to each other ... all these things send clear signals about the extent to which we are taking each other seriously.
One of the most famous experiments in industrial psychology was conducted by an Australian psychologist, Elton Mayo, working in the Hawthorne, Illinois, plant of Western Electric. Mayo was trying to establish a connection between conditions in the workplace and productivity. In one of his experiments he found, as predicted, that when he increased the brightness of illumination in the plant, productivity went up. But later, when he restored the brightness to its original level, productivity went up even further. His conclusion was that the workers were responding to someone taking an interest in them - taking them seriously - at least as much as to the illumination levels, per se.
We are very willing to acknowledge that indigenous people have a powerful sense of place, but less prepared to recognise that this is the case for all of us. We all have a powerful sense of place: we all need places in our life that say things about us we're pleased to have said; places that symbolise, perhaps, our rites of passage or other magical moments or phases of our lives. (Some people, even well into middle age, never quite forgive their elderly parents for selling the family home!) For churchgoers, 'my place' could be a favourite pew. For some rail commuters, it's a particular seat in a particular carriage. For some of us, it might be the shed or the bed or a favourite armchair, or the car - places where we feel we can truly be ourselves, where we feel comfortable and in control.
Migrants sometimes speak of the sense of rootlessness that can arise from losing the places that were special to them in their birth country and never being quite able to replace them in their adopted country.
For most of us, work is a place, as well. Indeed, workplaces often provide us with our richest sense of place - my office, my corner of the factory, my shop, or even my car (for those whose cars serve as a mobile office).
Humans are born believers - in terms of cognitive effort, neuroscience tells us, it is easier for us to believe than to remain sceptical. Bertrand Russell wrote that 'man is a credulous animal and must believe something. In the absence of good grounds for belief he will be satisfied with bad ones'. It is not surprising that we need something to believe in because our beliefs are how we make sense of things - how we cope with life's mysteries: Why we are here, what is the purpose of living, what is going to happen next, what is our place in the world ... the answers to all these questions seem shrouded in mystery. So we need some way of making sense of our lives; attaching meaning to our lives; finding a template, a code, that gives us a framework of 'meaning'.
In other words, we need a belief system to help us explain to ourselves why we are here and how we should live. Historically, most people have found their answers - their beliefs - in religion and that is still true for millions of people today. But in most Western societies, including ours, traditional religious faith and practice have been in sharp decline for 30 years or more. Of course, many people who withdraw from conventional religious practice still say they believe in 'god', but even those who don't still believe in something.
For instance, in most Western countries, about a third of the population say they believe in astrology. Perhaps you don't want to say you believe in astrology ... but almost everyone seems knows their star sign. Even if you say you're not interested, you find yourself in the hairdresser's, flipping through a magazine that's four months out of date, and you find yourself drawn to 'what the stars say'. (If only you could remember what was happening to you four months ago, you could check the accuracy of the predictions.) You hear people say things like this: 'It's all rubbish, of course; on the other hand, my husband is a textbook Aries'.
Some people believe passionately in the free market or a free enterprise economy; some believe in the god of science; some in rationality.
If you're looking for evidence of our desire to believe - and of the therapeutic power of belief - look no further than the famous 'placebo effect' in medical research. When medical researchers are trying to determine the efficacy of a drug, half the people in their test sample receive the drug and the other half receive an inert substance - like a sugar-coated piece of chalk. They all know they have only a fifty-fifty chance of being given the active drug, and yet, in hundreds of published papers reporting clinical trials of this kind, a persistent 30 percent of people who are only swallowing the chalk report the same therapeutic effect as those taking the drug. (The most dramatic documented example of the placebo effect, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, was based on a sample of people waiting for arthroscopy surgery on a knee. Half the patients had the operation while the other half simply had an incision made in the skin which was then stitched up, without any surgery. You guessed it: there was no statistically significant difference in pain relief or knee function, at least in the short term, between those who had the surgery and those who had only had the cut.
So we need to believe, and belief seems to be good for us.
The best organisations are able to satisfy, at least partially, their employees' desire for something to believe in - all of us would like to feel we are working for an organisation whose values we can both admire and espouse, and whose integrity we can respect. The idea of 'meaningful work' is intensely appealing to us.
We all know that we are social creatures - we need to connect with each other; communication is our lifeblood. But we also need to connect with ourselves; to know ourselves; to feel 'in touch' with ourselves. Know thyself is an injunction we'd all like to respond to though, for most of us, it seems to be a lifelong project. My personal guru in the field of psychology, the US psychotherapist Carl Rogers, reflecting on 40 years of clinical practice said: 'There is only one problem'. What he meant was that it doesn't matter what his clients were presenting with - broken marriages, dysfunctional relationships, addictions and phobias of all kinds - it always came down in the end to this: who am I? What kind of person am I, to have found myself in such a situation?
Since work is such a powerful source of identity for so many people, it's not surprising that one of the ways we connect with ourselves - get to know ourselves better - is in the context of work. This is often where we see ourselves at our shining best - achieving, interacting positively with others, fulfilling our potential.
But since most workplaces are social in nature, work also satisfies the desire to connect with other people, to feel part of the human web of connectedness. (Many people who live alone rely heavily on work to satisfy this desire.)
Ironically, recent British research has found that those who are most 'connected' at work in the IT sense are often least connected in the human sense and , as a result, experience higher levels of workplace boredom and frustration. We need to make real live, face-to-face contact with each other- we need to walk around - we need to chat - to feel fully connected, at work as elsewhere.
Of all the desires that drive us to work, none is more powerful than this deep, deep human desire to be useful. If you doubt its power, consider how you would feel if the judgment on your life and work was this: 'Oh, he's been a pretty useless father; she's a useless person around the office; they're useless neighbours.' We all need to know we're useful; that we serve some purpose; that we are contributing. It is the desire to be useful that propels us to do jobs that we don't like, but know need to be done. It's the desire to be useful that makes us helpful; that fuels our altruism; that leads us to respond to the needs of total strangers. It sounds like a modest desire but it's the very thing that helps create a civil society.
And nothing says 'You're useful' quite as eloquently as your work.
We humans are social creatures; tribal creatures; herd animals. We need those little groups -herds - that provide an intimate connection with others and we need those larger tribes as well - religious, political, sporting, professional. We need both kinds of belonging to give us a satisfying sense of identity and to build up our emotional security. It seems as if we can't easily get on without each other: there are true hermits and isolates, but they are few and far between.
Traditionally, the herd was the immediate, nuclear family - the household. The tribe was the extended family. In modern, more fragmented societies, both herds and tribes tend to be less familial: the herd might be a book club or a workgroup or a small knot of friends and neighbours; the tribe might be a political party or a religion. (For many people, religion is as much about belonging as believing.)
In well run organisations, work can satisfy the desire to belong at both levels - the herd of the workgroup (herds of between five and eight people seem to work best), and the tribe of the organisation itself - even if the job itself is not appealing.
We started life feeling as if we were in control. We yelled and someone fed us; we lay in a dirty nappy and someone changed it. Then we ran into others, perhaps at school, and discovered that many bother people also thought they were in control of the universe. Gradually, we came to the painful realisation that the only way we're going to get along in human communities is by learning how to co-operate - in other words, learn how to relinquish control.
Most of us stumble through life hoping to be able to control the uncontrollable, such as the weather and the traffic, and, most especially, each other. It takes us a long time to realise - and then accept - that the only life we can control is our own and, when it comes to weather or traffic or the myriad other external events and circumstances that affect our lives, the only thing we can control is our reaction to those external forces.
Many people are destabilised and even distressed by the rate of change - social, cultural, economic, technological. We often experience that as loss of control, and that fuels our anxieties and leads to our increasing reliance on tranquillisers and antidepressants (though I realise there's more to depression than loss of control). Most of our textbook phobias, our neuroses, are about this desire for control being frustrated: fear of flying, fear of crowds, fear of travelling in lifts, fear of open spaces .. all such fears are expressions of our desire for control.
One of the ways we try to gain a sense of control is through our beliefs, and our interpretation of events. If you feel you can explain something, you often feel more in control of its effect on you. (So the desire for control overlaps with the desire for something to believe in.)
Yet here again, work comes to the rescue for us. In the lives of many people, work is where the desire for control can be most effectively satisfied - though not if it involves unleashing the mad desire for control over others: that's never what inspired and visionary leadership has ever been about. But many studies have shown that those who feel they have some control over their own destiny at work - or even over the management of the work process itself - experience satisfactions unknown to those in more subservient or apparently powerless roles.
None of the desires I've described is inherently good or bad. Each of them has the potential to bring out the best and the worst in us; each of them has the potential to cast a dark shadow. When any of our desires are frustrated, they make their presence felt.
When the desire to be taken seriously is frustrated, for example, it can lead to feeling of resentment, irritation and even anger and violence - and we can see that in individuals and even entire societies (Germany between the two World Wars a classic case in point). When employees in an organisation feel they are not being taken seriously - not being acknowledged, appreciated or even noticed - that can lead, understandably, to those same outcomes: resentment, irritation, anger and even violence. Low morale is just the beginning; various forms of sabotage can be the all-too-predictable end-point.
The desire for control can fuel blind and ruthless ambition, authoritarianism, insensitive and autocratic behaviour.
The desire to belong can make us too eager to please, too eager to be accepted, too eager to belong - leading to acquiescence, unquestioning obedience and mindless conformity.
Even the desire to be useful can bring out the worst in us - dominating, overwhelming and undermining others in the misguided belief that we were 'only trying to help'.
Understanding the dynamic interplay between these seven desires - and, in particular, being alert to the potentially damaging effects of our frustrated desires - can help us make sense of apparently irrational behaviour in ourselves and others.
But the real lesson to be drawn from this analysis is that work won'tautomatically provide gratification of these desires. It all comes down to the magic blend of visionary leadership and sensitive management.
There are too many workplaces still characterised by racism, sexism, bullying and exploitation - especially of young and otherwise vulnerable people. If work is to satisfy all seven of these desires - as it is capable of doing - that will require enlightened, alert and sensitive leadership and management.
In well designed and sensitively managed workplaces, where work does satisfy most or all of these seven desires, the benefits in morale and productivity are obvious. But the payoff is greater than that - the ripples of satisfying work spread into our personal relationships beyond the workplace and ultimately into a more compassionate, confident and emotionally secure society.
Hugh Mackay is an Australian psychologist, social researcher and writer. His latest book is What makes us tick? The ten desires that drive us (Hachette, 2010)