is-a vs. has-a

The old-timers have it, of course. They started it, built it, went through hell to ship it, stepped up and created something from nothing in the midst of one disaster after another. You bet your ass they feel a part of what they created, feel like part of a special club, know with a justifiable sense of pride that they were important, that they mattered, that the company wouldn’t have achieved anywhere near the success it did, or even exist at all, if not for them.

But as the company grows, the indispensibility of any single individual must be reduced. Processes are defined, policies generated, responsibilities solidified. Roles become more specialized, and people can describe their jobs in a single word – engineer, designer, marketer. New hires arrive at desks with equipment already laid out, phones already connected and working, pre-assigned “buddies” and orientation sessions. It’s easy to slot in and get to work.

Of course, having a job is very different from being part of an organization. Managers at every level are intensely aware of who’s putting in the hours, who’s investing creative energy, who’s helping to forge a community. Managers and leaders struggle with this constantly. Is-a‘s build highly motivated, high functioning teams, focusing on culture and goals. Has-a‘s are emotionally uninvested in the end result, focus on tasks instead of goals, and prevent teams from gelling.

Naturally, companies want to have it both ways. They don’t want anyone to be irreplaceable, but they also want people to feel personally invested in the outcome. Thus the focus on happy hours, play rooms, corporate swag, ping pong tournaments, team lunches and other “team-building activities.” Everyone scoffs at offsites with rope courses and trust exercises, but they’re just a point on a continuum, all trying to convert has-a‘s into is-a‘s with the ease of a Rocky training montage – clockwatchers in one side, assembled Avengers out the other. There’s nothing nefarious about this, but the bigger a company gets, the more this tends to get delegated to HR, and the clumsier it feels.

Of course, this isn’t really about other people. This is about you and me, our teammates, and our relationship with the place we spend half our waking hours. There’s all the difference in the world between feeling that you’re part of something important, that your work – yours, specifically – matters, that the place in which you’re investing your energy is different because you’re there… And knowing that you’re a replaceable part, that you aren’t doing your best work, that at the end of the day, your contribution to the company’s output can best be described as “marginal production capacity.”

We can go a step farther, and put together a modified Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.


At the bottom-most level are hygiene factors – things you wouldn’t normally think about, unless they’re a problem. Like, if you’re in physical danger, or worried about whether you’re about to be fired, or if you’re being paid way below what you believe you deserve. The company doesn’t get any brownie points for making sure the toilet paper doesn’t run out, but getting it wrong will cause considerable angst.

Next is belonging, the feeling of working with and for people you like, and who genuinely like you. Feeling that you’re part of a larger group, that you’re accepted, and that the group shares your values.

Then comes esteem, the feeling that you’re respected by your co-workers and the organization. That your hard work is recognized, that your status is respected, that you’re treated fairly. That you find the work meaningful, and have opportunities to develop your skills. It’s also that your work helps enhance your self-respect. Working there makes you feel good about yourself.

At the pinnacle is self-actualization. At this level, you’re able to express yourself creatively, choose your own approach, and achieve mastery. It’s a great feeling to know that you’re making a difference, and growing in all sorts of exciting new directions.

When thinking about your company, team, or a specific person, it’s helpful to think about which of the above needs are and aren’t being met. You can’t “make” a has-a into an is-a, any more than you can “make” someone happy. What you can do is to grease the wheels by creating the conditions for them to move up the pyramid. Adding a zumba class after work might add marginally to a sense of belonging, but looking for ways to help people grow, take on more responsibility, and work more autonomously will make a much bigger difference.

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