Maslow at work

When thinking of the pioneers of business strategy, Abe Maslow doesn’t immediately come to mind. His hierarchy of needs is well-known and widely studied in psychology circles. In the business world, his theories are less known.

“Maslow on Management” is an interesting book. As to be expected, the work is heavily weighted towards human capital and how to maximize worker productivity.

This book was published in the 60’s under the esoteric title “Eupsychian Management.” It was rereleased under the far more approachable title, “Maslow on Management”, 37 years after its original publication.

Eupsychian — “ Having or moving toward a superior mind or soul.”

“Maslow on Management” is a challenging read. Unlike many modern business experts, Maslow does not offer a panacea for all the challenges a business faces. He admits that humans and businesses are complex, too complex to unravel in 296 pages. Quite a refreshing departure from today’s oversimplified best-selling business books. Looking for 7 steps to build a million dollar business in 90 days? Look elsewhere.

Maslow divides business management into two primary management styles. The command-and-control (Theory X) and enlightened (Theory Y) management approaches. Theory X views human capital as cogs in the machine. The Theory X businesses believe employees need structure and require intense monitoring to protect against undesirable behavior and ensure work is getting done. Theory Y, Maslow’s view, takes a more optimistic view of human capital. Maslow suggests that businesses should allow their employees the freedom to create and innovate. In Maslow’s view, work is not a hardship, rather it is a forum where enlightened workers can showcase their talent and achievements.

The why, not the what

Maslow encourages business leaders to give their employees a sense of purpose instead of forced marching orders. Provide the team with a noble reason why the business exists, they in turn will rise to the occassion. eBay’s mission is to create a friction-less marketplace for buyers and sellers. Matching supply and demand, eBay eliminates inefficiencies that lead to pricing and inventory anomolies. Using the power of the Internet, eBay helps unlock hidden inventory for buyers, while directing hard-to-find buyers to suppliers. As a result, thousands of sellers now supplement their income, or even make a living, by selling on eBay. The mission to create the perfect marketplace is a nobel cause. If eBay founder, Pierre Omidiyar, told his team that eBay’s directive was to create profits by taxing small businesses for product listings and transactions sold on their platform, the employee drive to build eBay into the dominant Internet auction site would not have held the same sense of urgency. In command-and-control businesses, employee feedback is not encouraged. Great ideas on how to improve the business go unsubmitted. Instead, management drives the business lacking key signals from front-line employees. In an enlightened company, employee feedback is welcomed. Crazy ideas that may radically improve the business, while still answering the key mission of the business, are considered. This team-oriented brainstorming approach provides the business with greater agility and innovation than their Theory X counterparts.

Synergy , the “non-zero-sum game”

In 50 years time, the core principles explained by Maslow remain universal. Throughout “Maslow on Management”, synergy is mentioned. However, Maslow’s use of the term synergy is more analogous to a “non-zero-sum game” ideal, than the “1+1 = 3” concept. For those who understand these phrases, congratuations, you’re business vocabulary is up-to-date. For those staring blankly at the screen, here’s a quick tutorial.


Zero-sum game

The idea of a zero sum game is that in a closed system (or game), there can only be so many goodies to go around. For every winner, there is an equal and opposite loser. The opposite of a zero-sum game is one where markets, opportunities and spoils can grow for multiple constituants. In this system, a rising tide raises all boats.


Maslow’s synergy theory is tied to human resources. He explains that management aligning with employees can be synergistic. Management need not lose control or power by empowering employees. Instead, the organization gains prestige, value and increased opportunities when improved production accelerates due to the efforts of a motivated work-force.

Not all managers or employees are created equal

At the halfway point of “Maslow on Management”, Maslow complicates his argument for the enlightened management approach. He introduces thorny questions.

  • If employees are allowed to work on what they love, who’s going to do the dirty work?
  • If an employee loves certain work functions and projects, but does not have the intelligence or skills to produce quality work, what then?
  • If a company gives their employees latitude to produce without rigorous oversight, what’s to stop employees from stealing, cheating or other such destructive behavior?
  • What about workers who prefer and need structure?

Maslow takes some controversial stances to answer these difficult questions. For one, Maslow does not believe all humans are created equal. One of the chapters is titled “the Very Superior Boss”. In this chapter he seriously discusses the challenge a manager with a far higher IQ than his employees faces.

In the end, Maslow does not deliver simple answers. He leaves many problems unresolved. He acknowledges that an enlighted manager will be tested when dealing with these issues. He suggests that some command-and-control tactics are necessary. While acknowledging some benefits of command-and-control, Maslow still champions the enlightened management system as the better approach. Despite its inherent weaknesses, an enlightened management system leads to higher levels of productivity, business success, and employee satisfaction over the command-and-control system.

Further reading required. See also Drucker

The strength of Maslow’s nuanced approach also makes it challenging to process. He refuses to oversimplify and sometimes goes deep into psychological concepts which are far more complex that the average business text. Maslow often references his peer and better known business expert, Peter Drucker. In contrast to Maslow, Drucker’s writing is clear and focused. After reading “Maslow on Management”, it becomes evident why Maslow has not achieved the adolation from the business community as Drucker has. This statement is not intended as a knock on Maslow. Though Maslow offers a more challenging discussion that Drucker, both authors are important thought leaders in business management. While Drucker covers more traditional business and management topics, Maslow’s background in psychology offers a unique view of the motivations and needs for the human-side of the organization. “Maslow on Management” may not be a “must-read” business book, but consider it a hidden gem that deserves consideration.

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