For nearly a year I worked for the state government’s Department of Corrective Services. I was a clerk in Human Resources, and my job was to go through the files of all New South Wales employees and ensure each one had certain documents. If the employee had worked for the department for at least two years, and if their file possessed the required documents, I could recommend that they become a permanent staff member (if they weren’t already). If the file did not possess those documents I would write a letter to the employee asking for them, explaining the situation. They would have to send me original documents, or photocopies of them that were signed by a Justice of the Peace.
The trouble was, it was a pointless exercise and here’s one example to indicate why: one employee had been working for the department for twenty years, but had not been made a permanent employee. That employee was already being given the highest wage possible for that position, but was still technically on probation. No one had asked him for the documents, so I had to write to him and ask for a certified copy of his birth certificate and Higher School Certificate.
I pleaded with my supervisor to just forget that file, pointing out that even if we had the documents it would make no difference to the employee, or to us, or to anyone. Ever. If Human Resources had wanted to sack him for any reason, they couldn’t do it by arguing that he was still on probation!
I was told to send the letter.
There were many such instances. Countless employees had not supplied the documents, yet they were unquestionably permanent. Even the ones just completing their first two years gained no advantage. Each and every request I sent was pointless.
After a while I stopped asking my supervisor, and just sent the letters.
Some employees responded to my request in a less than favourable fashion, while others seemed unsurprised, and without comment gave me what I asked for.
It was the most pointless job I have had.
As useful as an ashtray on a motorbike.
I told them to sack me and get rid of the position.
The thing is, I enjoyed the job. The people were a hoot to work with, and in some vague way I still felt I was contributing. After all, I was efficient in my pointlessness. I did a good job. When I plonked a pile of completed files on my supervisor’s desk I felt a sense of satisfaction. When my out-tray was empty I felt like the King of Productivity.
It’s not hard to satisfy our need to contribute. Granted, had I stayed in the job I might have dried up like a booger in the sun.
The tenet of this book is that we evolved three innate needs that create the ‘social glue’ prompting us to live in groups.
1. The need to feel connected with the tribe.
2. The need to feel that we contribute to the tribe.
3. The need to feel valued by the tribe.
The three are intertwined, of course. We need to contribute, but we also need to feel valued for that contribution. A plaque in a zoo might say: “Tim Smith generously donated this elephant.” But if the zoo didn’t put up that plaque to thank Tim, Tim would take his elephant elsewhere. Tim feels good about his contribution, and the plaque helps him feel that his contribution has not been taken for granted – it helps him feel valued.
As my job story indicates, it’s not hard to satisfy our need to contribute. Our effort only has to be big enough in our eyes to satisfy that need; it doesn’t have to be game changing. The infant who helps her parents pick the tomatoes, by picking one, thinks she’s contributing.
For that reason this is a brief section. You don’t need me to tell you how to make a contribution – that will come to you naturally. But there is one big thing we can do that can significantly satisfy that need and help satisfy our deep need to belong. I’ll see you in the next chapter.