Man as Perpetually Wanting Animal

Success­ful col­lab­o­ra­tion in the age of knowl­edge work, espe­cial­ly in agile organ­i­sa­tions with their high degree of self-organ­i­sa­tion and self-respon­si­bil­i­ty, depends to a large extent on the assump­tions about human nature. Dou­glas McGre­gor stat­ed as ear­ly as 1963 in his sem­i­nal book “The Human Side of Enter­prise” that we should no longer regard peo­ple as lazy and reluc­tant to work (The­o­ry X), but as intrin­si­cal­ly moti­vat­ed and will­ing to per­form (The­o­ry Y). McGre­gor clear­ly builds on the work of Abra­ham Maslow, which mean­while has become an indis­pens­able part of man­age­ment lit­er­a­ture in the form of the hier­ar­chy of needs named after him. How­ev­er, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the form of a pyra­mid is a mis­lead­ing inter­pre­ta­tion that Maslow did not come up with himself.

The Hierarchy of Needs

The tra­di­tion­al visu­al­iza­tion of Maslow’s hier­ar­chy of needs as pyra­mid (Source: Wikipedia)

Abra­ham Maslow clas­si­fied human needs into dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories and ranked them in his pop­u­lar arti­cle “A The­o­ry of Human Moti­va­tion” in 1943. The basis is formed by ele­men­tary phys­i­o­log­i­cal needs such as eat­ing and drink­ing. They are fol­lowed by basic needs for phys­i­cal and men­tal secu­ri­ty and also basic finan­cial secu­ri­ty. Next come social needs such as belong­ing, friend­ship and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, fol­lowed by indi­vid­ual needs includ­ing trust, recog­ni­tion, sta­tus, impor­tance, and respect from others.

Accord­ing to Maslow these first four are defi­cien­cy needs, because the non-ful­fil­ment leads on the one hand to phys­i­cal or men­tal dam­age and on the oth­er hand the over­ful­fil­ment of these needs does not bring any addi­tion­al ben­e­fit after a cer­tain degree of sat­u­ra­tion. On the oth­er hand, he sees self-actu­al­iza­tion, i.e. man’s striv­ing to unfold his tal­ents, poten­tials and cre­ativ­i­ty, to devel­op him­self fur­ther, to shape his life and to give it a pur­pose, as a basi­cal­ly insa­tiable need of growth.

Man is a per­pet­u­al­ly want­i­ng animal.

Abra­ham Maslow: A The­o­ry of Human Moti­va­tion, 1943

Maslow says that these needs build on each oth­er, but nowhere in his work does he say that the low­er lev­el needs must be met 100% before those at the next lev­el become rel­e­vant (see this recent arti­cle or sum­ma­ry of it). How­ev­er, this is exact­ly what the rep­re­sen­ta­tion as a pyra­mid sug­gests, which is why in many sem­i­nars and books Maslow’s idea is mis­in­ter­pret­ed in this way over and over again. And this despite the fact that Maslow him­self address­es exact­ly this in the orig­i­nal arti­cle from 1943:

So far, our the­o­ret­i­cal dis­cus­sion may have giv­en the impres­sion that these five sets of needs are some­how in a step-wise, all-or-none rela­tion­ship to each oth­er. We have spo­ken in such terms as the fol­low­ing: ‚If one need is sat­is­fied, then anoth­er emerges.‘ This state­ment might give the false impres­sion that a need must be sat­is­fied 100 per cent before the next need emerges.

Abra­ham Maslow: A The­o­ry of Human Moti­va­tion, 1943

The some­what sta­t­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of these needs as a pyra­mid sim­ply does not reflect the com­plex­i­ty and dynam­ics of human needs. It is an unac­cept­able sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, which has unfor­tu­nate­ly become wide­spread despite or pre­cise­ly because of this. In fact, all needs are present simul­ta­ne­ous­ly with vary­ing intensity.

Value Creation Through Appreciation

Admit­ted­ly one can still believe that orga­ni­za­tions and espe­cial­ly com­pa­nies in the free mar­kets do not have to feel respon­si­ble for all these indi­vid­ual needs. No one would say it as clear­ly today as Hen­ry Ford, who only wished for human labor and grumpy­ly accept­ed the rest (“Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?”), but in most orga­ni­za­tions at most the lev­el of the indi­vid­ual needs such as trust, esteem, self-affir­ma­tion, suc­cess, free­dom and inde­pen­dence is reached. 

A bet­ter visu­al­iza­tion of Maslow’s hier­ar­chy of needs (Source: Wikipedia)

In many places, how­ev­er, these spheres can­not be reached at all. Usu­al­ly you can con­sid­er your­self lucky if at least the social needs are sat­is­fied by nice col­leagues and good team­work. But through harm­ful eval­u­a­tion and incen­tive sys­tems, which aim more at indi­vid­ual com­pe­ti­tion than at coop­er­a­tion, some­times not even that is giv­en and thus it’s just a job to pay off the house. No won­der peo­ple are not moti­vat­ed and must be stim­u­lat­ed to per­form with increas­ing­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed incen­tive systems. 

With­out peo­ple there is no econ­o­my. Con­se­quent­ly, peo­ple are always ends and the econ­o­my only means – not vice versa.

Götz W. Werner

The results of this mind­set are well known and can be seen year after year, for exam­ple, in the Gallup Engage­ment Index. In 2018, 71% of employ­ees in Ger­man com­pa­nies worked by the book, 14% even resigned inter­nal­ly and only 15% real­ly put their heart and soul into their work. If you fol­low Maslow’s descrip­tion of human needs and McGre­gor’s con­cept of man based on it, then the rea­son is not so much peo­ple as the way we have built organ­i­sa­tions. Or to put it anoth­er way: Who­ev­er builds orga­ni­za­tions like machines and uses (and wears out) peo­ple like gears in them can at best expect work by the book. 

I can assure you that there is a place where your employ­ees are cre­ative, but that place may not be their workplace.

Gary Hamel: The Future of Management.

The employ­ees then seek the sat­is­fac­tion of their unful­filled needs out­side their work­place, in their fam­i­lies, in asso­ci­a­tions, in hob­bies and much more. This, how­ev­er, means that an incred­i­ble amount of indi­vid­ual poten­tial is lost for the organ­i­sa­tion. It would there­fore cer­tain­ly pay off to offer employ­ees the oppor­tu­ni­ty to devel­op their poten­tial and ulti­mate­ly their self-actu­al­iza­tion with­in their work­ing hours. A good start­ing point for this would be to ques­tion the pre­vail­ing con­cept of man and, build­ing on this, to design a suit­able frame­work in which peo­ple can unleash their poten­tial. This dream of a more humane work­ing world con­tin­ues to haunt me and that is exact­ly why the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship (also avail­able in Ger­man as paper­back at Ama­zon or as e‑book in Eng­lish on Lean­pub) is so impor­tant to me.

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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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