The problem with Maslow’s model…and everything else !

This video trigerred off a thought process on Maslow’s heirarchy of needs.

Maslow’s model is one of the most elegant models I have come across in HR management. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of experience with actual people to grasp the point that this is just a model that only partly describes the utterly chaotic way people behave in a “live” organization.

Organizations are like living breathing animals made of tiny micro-organisms that are each fighting for their own survival. (It has been subtly argued that the human body itself is a microcosm made of billions of “living” genes that are each fighting to survive into the next generation…but that is a topic for a seperate post). To claim to have a model that can accurately predict how an organization will work (or not work) is a stretch …unfortunately that is exactly what most organizational behaviour theories do.

To get off my soap-box, I will have to admit that Maslow’s model does provide some direction on how people might be expected to behave under specific circumstances. This is the assumption (and prayer) on which most organizations design their reward/punishment set ups.

Maslow states that individuals have hierarchical needs that follow an order. For example, the first thing any individual needs is air to breathe, food to eat and water to drink. Only once these needs are met do individuals look for other needs. There is also a “diminishing returns” flavor here in the sense that once a person’s non-esteem needs are met (meaning he has enough money) simply adding more money will not increase the motivation. And so forth…you get the general idea.

However, this is obviously over simplified. How much money is enough ? When does a person’s self-actualization need kick in ? Do all individuals have this need ? Arent there individuals whose sole mission in life is to make money ? Aren’t there individuals whose mission in life depends on making a whole lot of money ? This is where the model loses its smooth curves and acquires rough edges.

The bottom line is not to trash this model specifically. The point is that too much of HR management in companies is based purely on these models. A more popular crib is against the “bell curve” where organizations rate their employees on the bell curve without considering the fact that each employee is different (moreover treating employees like just another statistic is a little “yuck”!)…it is a pathetic and lazy practice and should be discontinued.

Too many managers get ahead in life just by mouthing these theories and models. The true leader is the one who understands his own ecosystem and is also brave enough to admit that he does not understand well enough to generalize…I am waiting for that kind of leader !


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