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.