02 December 2006

Maslow's Needs, Bad Societies, and the Modern Corporation

The difference between a bad and good society seems to me rather simple. In a bad society, human needs are subordinated to the dominant institution - whether it is church, state, bank, or corporation. In a good society, institutions are subordinated to human needs.

In a bad society, the very real needs of a human to inquire about reality are shut down by a church with a monopoly on truth. Scientists like Bruno are killed - Galileo shut up by the church. In a bad society, the individual is not allowed an opinion that contradicts the head of state - whether that is Louis XIV or Lenin. In a society gone bad, the 9 year-old loses his childhood to factory work, as the demands of capital are allowed to trump the rights of children.

Today's corporations are wonderful. They create more wealth, products, and services for more people than any social invention in history. And yet the role of the individual within the corporation is a role that subordinates basic needs - even the need to contribute.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs still seems a useful way to articulate human needs. Physiological and safety needs are basic. Beyond that are the needs for a sense of belonging and esteem. Finally, the need for self-actualization.

The good news is that our social constructs to date have brought us to the point that most of us in the developed nations have our physiological and safety needs met. Many of us even have the need for belonging met by our inclusion in a corporation and occasionally we have even our esteem needs met.

But given how unique is each one of us, self-actualization is elusive. One might scoff at this as an important need, but one dimension of progress is the capability to meet successively more advanced needs. I would argue that self-actualization is ultimately a creative act that requires that the individual create his or her own context. This context will be in the form of a social construct - a role that works for the individual. Rarely will such a role be assigned or found and more often will it have to be created.

Yet in today's model of the corporation, the individual's need for self-actualization is simply not a consideration. Oddly, management is largely uninterested in its most important resource actually realizing its potential. And by potential I don't mean some strictly subjective and personal definition (although it would certainly include such an element) but potential to contribute, to create value as measured by markets. Rather, the model of the corporation assumes that the entrepreneur or his / her proxies (in the form of senior managers) will define the roles within the organization and the individual will fulfill them.


Life Hiker said...

A corporate manager usually has quite a number of people involved in achieving the objectives of the group.

Although employees' formal qualifications may be similar in many respects, their individual talents,working styles and personal goals differ significantly.

Some prefer routine over change; some thrive on solving difficult problems, while others are easily frustrated; some love the limelight, others hate it; some work well in groups, while others prefer solitude. Some even live to work, while others work to live.

Excellent managers mold the structure of their organization to maximize on the interests and capabilities of each individual. This can be done informally,by migrating tasks without changing job titles, or it can be done formally, by restructuring the jobs and job titles. Usually the former is simpler and more flexible over time.

By tailoring jobs as much as possible to the interests, capabilities, and aspirations of each employee, managers can help maximize their self-actualization while simultaneously maximizing the work output of the group.

I wish I could claim authorship of this idea, but I must credit Dean Meckling, former head of the graduate business school at the University of Rochester, and professor Michael Jensen, for introducing it to me many years ago.

Ron said...

Very well put. And a very important point. The question I continue to struggle with is how to get an increasing percentage of managers to take ownership of this approach. It is so demoralizing when a manager takes an approach that is even 90, much less 180 degrees removed from this.