Alicia Florrick had it all, the suburban home, the powerful partner, the kids in fancy schools, and the most precious social asset –for some– status. Yet, it all crumbled when his powerful husband, the State’s Attorney of Cook County, was arrested for lascivious and corrupt behaviour. This is how the American drama that captivated everyone The Good Wife begins. In the series, as Alicia’s life falls to pieces, she loses everything, and is forced to go back to work as a junior-associate at a Chicago law firm. Unfortunately, she is not the only new member of the firm, as she quickly meets Cary. At the end of an initial period, only one of them will be promoted to a permanent position. The reward for doing a good job is certainly appealing to both. Yet, the truth is that both Alicia and Cary are extraordinary attorneys. It is difficult, hence, for the managing partners Will and Diane to decide, based on performance, who deserves the promotion. In the end, Alicia recurs to her connections, and by showing the partners that she knows influential people, manages to get the job. Not exactly the nicest strategy, but she was desperate to get the job.
What the case of Alicia Florrick evidences is that we live in an extraordinarily competitive world. We all grew up thinking that we were special and that performing outstandingly at school would prepare us for a fantastic life filled with success. Well, I am not going to deny fully the latter, but it might not be completely true. University is probably one of the first places where Alicia and Cary’s dilemma becomes evident. Particularly, for top universities, all of which receive applications from top performing students with spectacular marks, it becomes impossible to define which one deserves a spot and which one does not. I mean, how could you differentiate between a student with straight A’s and another that also has straight A’s? In the UK, Oxbridge, for example, has dealt with this by investing excessive amounts of money trying to understand their applicants as much as possible (e.g. the famous interviewing process) (Palfreyman, 2001). Beyond universities, many other organizations can also struggle to decide who deserves a job, a promotion, or a reward, as they face increasingly competitive employees.
Now, beyond the latter, Alicia’s case says something more about what 'reward' in organizations might be and how it could work. The myth exists that jobs are about money, and that people get a job because they want or need money (Jenkins et al., 1998). This is absolutely true. Certainly, for someone without a job, on the edge of bankruptcy, getting a job would first of all be about money. This is why most reward systems in organizations used to be (and generally remain) exclusively –or at least mainly– focused on rewarding people with money for their work. But, is this all that people are looking for in a job (Gallo, 2011)? Well, The Good Wife might have the answer. At first, Alicia Florrick’s fear of losing everything because of a husband who is in jail, probably moves her towards getting a job to secure her family’s future and survival. However, as time passes and we get to know her, it becomes clear that Alicia needs a job for many other reasons. Two of which are her need to feel autonomous and competent. It is clear that, when younger, Alicia used to be a top lawyer, who sacrificed her career for her husband, a husband who ended up cheating on her in every way you could possibly imagine. As her life is crumbling, she realizes her vulnerability, and how having betted her life on this 'horrible' man, was probably not the best decision. Her need for autonomy and competence definitely fits in with what self-determination theory would suggest. Self-determination theory argues that beyond certain biological needs that human beings have, they also have some innate psychological ones (Thagard, 2010). Three are particularly important for this theory: competence, relatedness, and autonomy (Deci and Ryan, 2000: 228). In the case of Alicia, we can see her desire not only to work at a top firm but to become a leading person in it, as expressions of her need first for autonomy and then for competence.
Let us talk now about relatedness, which is key in human survival in many ways. Particularly important, is that by being wired with the need to connect with other people, we facilitate cooperation, which allows us to do more together than what we could do alone. Of course, the question is, how could this relate to organizations? Well, organizations have become a key source for people to become a part of something larger than themselves. In the past, there were probably other ways to fulfil our need to feel that we belong, which were probably more important than organizations. Religion was probably one of the key communities that bestowed that sense of belonging on people (Wilson, 2014). Another one was probably family. The problem of course is that in our current times, people spend –sometimes, not always– much more time at work than with their families; or families –regrettably– dissolve more frequently than they did many years ago. Not to mention that in younger generations the desire to form a family tends –nowadays– to be pushed until much later in life. If we look at religion, things look in a similar way. Of course, religions continue today and many people are still deeply religious. Yet, for instance, in the UK it is a well-known fact that people’s religiosity has dwindled. In other words, in our modern times, sometimes work and being a part of an organization has taken a role never seen before. Thus, working might not be solely about being paid and making money, but has increasingly become about being part of something else, about finding meaning.
The great Viktor Frankl argued that meaning is one of the most powerful motivations behind a human being; or as he put it, ‘Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life’ (1984: 121). Meaning is about feeling that we are going somewhere, that we are achieving something, and that it is not all for nothing. Certainly, our necessity for relatedness driving us to become a part of something larger than ourselves relates to meaning, as feeling that we belong is one of the most essential elements of a meaningful life. The challenge for organizations is, hence, to learn how to manage meaning and a meaningful experience. I mean, yes, people need money and some even love money. So it makes sense that most rewarding strategies in organizations are aimed at defining the relationship between work/effort and economic reward. But, leaders in organizations need to start thinking now about how to make more comprehensive reward systems. In short, how could we reward people with a sense of belonging? How could reward them with a sense of autonomy? And, most importantly, how could we create ‘a vision wherein organization members experience a sense of calling in that their life has meaning and makes a difference’ (Fry, 2003: 711)?
Deci EL and Ryan RM (2000) The What and Why of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self- Determination of Behavior. An International Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory 11(4): 227–268.
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