The needs of… how many?

Often times we tend to fall back to that age old saying: “look out for number one”.  The reason I bring this up is that in the past couple of months I have been witness to a number of conversations that were centered around  questions like pay, individual development needs and autonomous working environments.  Often times one gets the impression that some of the argumentation comes from a very self-centric place. I’m not trying to say anything bad about the people involved in these conversations – just that quite often as a human being we do tend to look out for ourselves and protect our interests first. And this does not have to be a 100% conscious or deliberately egotistical thing.

It is always important to balance the facts and try to objectively work out what the best course of action will be – either those that meet the needs of the company as a whole,  or those of individuals or groups of individuals. 

In the Film “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, the Science Officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise does something that at first seems irrational to his fellow crew members.  He sacrifices himself for the good of the rest of the ship. Being a senior officer, it could have been an option for him to order another crewman, a less important one like – say – an Ensign, into the chamber. This way, the ship would retain its more experienced senior officer who was more important when it came to making heavily weighted decisions.  There are many Ensigns, but very few senior officers.

But let me just back up a few steps for those of you who are not too familiar with Star Trek – the “Trekkies” amongst us will forgive me for boring them with the details: the Science Officer is not human, he is from a planet where the inhabitants have learned to react to situations in a logical manner – always.  He is, of course, constantly confronted with ideas, concepts and decisions which have ethical components that allude all logic (it would seem).   During the film, there is a theme that is central to the narrative: whether the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the individual or the few, or perhaps the other way around. 

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But, what is the “need” we are talking about here really? 

Essentially self worth and personal values are often more important to the individual than they are to the group.  The “needs” are these values and beliefs, and sometimes they must be put first when judging how to go about choosing a course of action that will protect them.

Can it be said that the decision that yields the greatest amount of satisfaction, good or utility for the greater number of persons is the best?  When making a decision in an organization, where lies the greater good?  In a few persons who are less satisfied with the result of a decision, but where the organization has been given the ability to operate further – or is it in the greater happiness of individuals where the company itself will suffer?   Perhaps we might say that the needs of the many are the need for a secure job in a stable workplace.

Or is it safe to say that the needs of the one are all equally important?  They certainly are more important to each singular person, and should always be considered when making a decision.  But how far do we consider  them (we always respect them), and how rational or irrational are we when we give the needs of the individual more consideration than the needs of the whole organization?  The science officer in the film made his decision.  Sacrifice one life in return for 400 – his needs as an individual did not outweigh the common unified goal of an entire crew.  Saving 400 single lives was not the plan, but saving the beliefs, achievements and progress that are to come out of the 400 working as a group towards one common goal. 

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Sometimes it is in the best interest of the company to make a decision that will be unpopular for a great number of people, like redundancies or a year with little to no pay increases.  Is it wrong for a company to do these things, or is the company further securing jobs for a greater number of people with these measures? I think this is where the root of discussions should be, and not solely “what’s in it for me”.  It’s not always as clean cut as we imagine it to be, but I’m sure we will all get it right if we put the right things on the scales… 

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