Engaging Small Businesses in Global Sustainability: Maslow’s Needs, Piaget’s Permanence, and Identifying With Community

Engaging Small Businesses in Global Sustainability:  Maslow’s Needs, Piaget’s Permanence, and Identifying With Community

Sustainability has sometimes been simply defined by the phrase “Enough for all forever.”  Of course, people can debate what “enough” is and what is practical, but this phrase should also give us pause to consider when people and organizations are at a stage in their individual lives to be able to contribute to that sustainability.  Should we expect “all” to contribute to sustainability “for everyone” throughout their entire life cycles, even at the early developmental stages of the individual or organization?  It has made me wonder about how small startup businesses could consider doing this.

At any given time, individuals and organizations are at different stages in their respective existences and have different needs.  Under Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there are five levels of needs usually depicted as a pyramid.  From the bottom to the top, these needs are: (1) Physiological, (2) Safety, (3) Belongingness and Love, (4) Esteem, and (5) Self-actualization, respectively.  It is posited that one must meet the “basic needs” (e.g., lower levels) before moving up the pyramid to higher levels and eventually “self-actualization.”  Yet it is also posited that individuals are addressing all these needs throughout their lives, but one level may be “dominant” in a particular time and place in one’s life.  Maslow further theorized that people who achieve self-actualization can be driven by “metamotivation” to be “dedicated people, devoted to some task ‘outside themselves,’ some vocation, or duty, or beloved job.”  Therefore, a person’s focus appears to evolve from an interest of one’s self to an “outside” interest.  Yet what is one’s “own community” and what is “outside” an individual’s or an organization’s self?  Further, what are one’s values and how does one value their own community?

To put this in perspective, I recall suffering from a high fever.  I was having trouble breathing and could not sleep.  My basic physiological needs were no longer being met, and I will confess that I felt like a sick child focused on myself and wanting to get better.  Fortunately, I had access to a physician and prescribed medicines to alleviate the affliction, and I was in good enough health to go back to work within a day, so I no longer needed to worry about what would happen to my family if I did not recover.  Yet there are people who do not have access to medical care for which the same fever could have had more dire consequences, including many more days of severe suffering and being away from work for extended periods of time.  This made me consider how fortunate many of us are, yet it also made me consider how one’s needs are focused by what one considers his/her own community at one time and place in one’s life.  My focus was initially on myself as “my community,” then my focus shifted to also include my family as “my community” as I contemplated the implications of my illness.  Thus, time played a role in which community I identified with as my “own community.”

To analogize, a new born child’s “community” is first only that of the child and his/her mother during the early developmental stage.  It is all about the child and the world revolves around the child.  The child’s needs are then met by the larger community (e.g., his/her parents and family).  As the child grows up, the individual moves through Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, identifying with different groups and achieving interconnectedness.  Accordingly, the individual will learn to protect the existence of the “community” to which he/she feels connected.  As a baby, that community is only the child and his/her mother, but this would grow to encompass his/her entire family, then hopefully embrace a larger sense of community.

Basically, this could mean that mankind’s natural instinct for “self-preservation” or “self-survival” would possibly extend to whatever “grouping” the individual deems the “community” with which that individual feels interconnected.  For example, I would not hesitate to sacrifice my own life for my child or for my family.  This would ensure survival of my family for the next generation.  However, in the Book of Genesis, Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his own son Isaac.  Abraham had faith that this sacrifice was for the greater good, so he was prepared to give up the life of his son for this broader community.  There are many who are noble supporters of sustainability, but would all be willing to sacrifice like Abraham to achieve it.  As another example, one should consider the situation where an individual would be an organ donor upon his/her death, but would hesitate if his/her death was not imminent.  The time and place can play an important role in this decision because in one case, the individual would no longer have any need or use of his/her organs at death, while in the other situation the individual does have a current need for those organs.  To what levels are individuals and organizations willing to support and sacrifice for a greater good or broader community?  If one identifies his/her community with the “global community,” then presumably such support and sacrifices will be made for global sustainability.

Then there comes the concept of “permanence” of the greater good of global sustainability for the individual.  As a child grows, the child also develops an understanding of the concept Jean Piaget’s “object permanence,” that is, children understand that objects continue to exist even after the object moves outside of the senses of the child.  While humans are rationale beings, it is more difficult to interconnect with something that one does not personally experience through his/her own senses.  Accordingly, for people to understand, appreciate, and consistently act on sustainability, it seems that people and organizations need to develop a global needs perspective or “global sustainability permanence.”

This puts forth a challenge for small businesses.  In my experience working with innovative inventors and small business technology companies, the trend has been for them to use their very limited startup resources to get the business “up and running” and on self-sustainability, that is, the focus is on survival of the company itself.  Yet even so, the dream or goal is often for the business to be acquired by a large business and to be able to “cash out” as soon as possible, thus the focus is only on survival until that point (not necessarily on long-term global sustainability).  Therefore, while the business may have an innovative product that could potentially help society, there may be a stronger motivation for maximizing profit for the individual investors.  This could result in self-interests potentially overshadowing “doing good” for the global community.  In such case, the ethics and ethos of the business leaders would need to come into play about how one makes money and at what sacrifices.

Global sustainability requires a worldwide community commitment for success, so there is a need for small businesses to also understand and support this effort.  In its early developmental stages, a small business is like a child and does need to focus on its “basic needs” for self-sustainability and survival of the company.  If the company does not survive, then the global community may never benefit from the potential products/services which that small business could offer.  On the other hand, there may also be occasions where initial use of non-sustainable practices could result in more quickly bringing broader sustainable benefits over the long-term, so an objective assessment would need to be made as to whether the sacrifice is worth the benefit for achieving a greater good.

Some people may argue that self-survival and global sustainability are opposing forces, but self-survival and global sustainability may merely be a Taoist yin-yang relationship, in that one cannot achieve global sustainability if the instinct for self-preservation is not fully evolved (e.g., to include continuance of the species), and one cannot achieve self-preservation if global sustainability is not embraced.  Accordingly, for the small business to achieve this balance, it appears that the organization would need to have achieved and embraced “global sustainability permanence” and to have identified itself as an interconnected part of the global community, thus survival of the global community would be an intrinsic element of the business and no longer “outside the senses” of the organization.  But of course, this commitment to global sustainability would need to flow from the small business’ leadership.


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4 Responses to Engaging Small Businesses in Global Sustainability: Maslow’s Needs, Piaget’s Permanence, and Identifying With Community

  1. rbp046 says:

    Hi Hotelchocam, Interesting thoughts. You compare the concept of a child moving through a series of communities through to adulthood with a journey through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But I wonder how realistic this is to apply to the many children who grow up in poverty throughout the world? A quick google indicates that there are 2.2 billion children in the world and 1 billion of those live in poverty (http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats). Do you think that Maslow’s model is refined enough to properly reflect the needs and journey that they might make? A proportion of the children in poverty won’t journey much beyond their physiological needs? Does your hypothesis also apply to their “communities”?

    Is your perspective around sacrifice based around those individuals in business you know that are already metamotivated? You say there are many that would be willing to sacrifice for sustainability; this suggests to me that they haven’t done so yet. Of the many that you know, why do you think that they haven’t done so already? Why do you refer to them as noble? I suspect that there are many individuals who understand the sustainability argument, but does that make them noble? You close by saying that the commitment to global sustainability would need to flow from small business leadership, but what about the impact of other commercial stakeholders, eg, suppliers, customers and regulatory bodies? Are these not also yin-yang and would they not also have an influence on the ability of a business to embrace “sustainability permanence”?

    • hotelchocam says:

      Hello rbp046, There were quite a few thoughts noted, so I thank you for wading through my stream of consciousness and not drowning in it. I do agree with you in that a child living in poverty may not journey through all of the “levels” of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Yet, it has also been argued that we all experience each of the levels, but one level is dominant at one time in one’s life versus another time. Sadly, I believe that the children who are suffering in poverty will not make that journey, but rather, would only be focusing on self-survival and meeting their basic physiological needs. I believe this may apply to their communities as well, if their communities are focusing on surviving, for example, a village overrun by drought will be focusing all its efforts on finding/saving water to survive. There is the basic instinct of survival which is innate, yet striving for global sustainability is a learned social imperative.
      As for sacrifice, I believe that true sacrifices are made for things that one believes in and for which there is an interconnectedness, thus a metamotivated individual could indeed make a true sacrifice for a “cause” which he/she believes in. You had noted “You say there are many that would be willing to sacrifice for sustainability; this suggests to me that they haven’t done so yet.” I must confess that the sentence you are referring to should have been a question and read as “There are many who are noble supporters of sustainability, but would all be willing to sacrifice like Abraham to achieve it?” I refer to these individuals as “noble” supporters of sustainability because they have found their interconnection with this broader community cause, but you are right that understanding it alone does not make them noble. Taking action is a key. Yet making sacrifices is a difficult choice because one needs to give up something valuable to them, and to what levels are individuals and organizations willing to support and sacrifice for a greater good or broader community? I was focusing on small business in my posting, so I closed by saying that the commitment to global sustainability would need to flow from small business leadership. However, you are right that other stakeholders do have an impact on whether leadership will make that commitment, whether it be from inside or outside stakeholders.

  2. Hi hotelchocham, as part of a group research paper I looked into interconnectedness and whether this could create personal responsibility for sustainability as a way of inspiring behaviour change within business… working from the assumption that ‘We are connected. If this can be taught, and if people could understand it, we would have a different consciousness’ (David Bohm, in Jaworski and Senge, 2011). I’d be interested on your thoughts around this and what is required to trully realise this – if you have any examples? My personal belief is that an individuals tension between sustainability conviction and lack of action comes into sharp focus within a business context; i.e. even those who would take action on sustainability at the individual level seem daunted or uncertain of how to effect change within the business community.

    • hotelchocam says:

      Hello bethknight1902, I would also like to thank you for having taken the time to read through this rather long posting of mine. Your quote is quite apropos! I agree that we would have a different consciousness if people understood that we are connected. You pose a difficult question in how do we “realize” this. I would agree with you that part of the hurdle is to understand how to effect change within the business community. However, we would hope that inspiring behavior change in business would be a simple solution, but “understanding” and “taking action” can be quite separate things.
      I also agree with you that an individual’s tension between sustainability conviction and lack of action does come into sharp focus within a business context. Should resources be “diverted” to achieve global sustainability and a better CSR image?
      There are various things which could be done to promote sustainability efforts. It appears that it is easier to be a follower than an innovative leader, so providing businesses with examples or samples can lay a groundwork for achieving sustainability. In this way, a business can be provided a pre-defined roadmap for how to support global sustainability, as opposed to taking more time to develop approaches from scratch. This may not be ideal because different businesses have different circumstances and one size does not always fit all. Yet establishing international standards and providing examples like the ISO 26000 does provide a starting point. Therefore, at a minimum a business could follow these if they were willing to make sacrifices to take such actions. But then, another question comes as to whether the business makes positive efforts because they are dedicated to global sustainability or only because they are trying to achieve a positive CSR image. Thus, there remains the question of whether they are truly interconnected with the broader global community, or they are merely trying to greenwash.

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