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Self-actual engineering is about designing yourself, your relationships, and your environment to foster your self-actualization.

Maslow on Management

What does the famous creator of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Motivation say about motivating humans?

A series of articles from Maarten van Doorn, Charles Chu and I have been talking about empathy, happiness, and meaning. I linked to them in You Don’t Know Water Until You’ve Left Your Fishbowl, in which I explained the difference between hedonic and eudaimonic happiness.

Scholars of happiness make a distinction between hedonic happiness and eudaimonic happiness. The former relates to hedonism, for which the modern catchphrase might be “Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll,” but eudaimonic happiness is more about self-actualization — i.e., becoming the best version of your true self, including finding what the Japanese call Ikigai.
— from ‘You Don’t Know Water Until…’

Hedonic happiness is found in the bottom half of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Motivation, where we find food, shelter, safety, and sex. Eudaimonic happiness is found at the top, where we find self esteem, self efficacy, a sense of community and belonging, and self actualization.

As a teacher, I used to think that creating a learning environment that allowed my students to work at the top of the pyramid was the best thing I could do for everyone. After all, that’s where intrinsic motivation resides.

Then I read Maslow on Management, and that changed my mind.

People make meaning of their experiences in different ways. Not everyone has achieved a feeling of safety in the classroom that permits them to work at higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Some people who have only experienced authoritarian environments will feel imperiled in the less authoritarian, self-directed management structure that Maslow calls “enlightened”.

Maslow writes that a certain portion of the population will be “frightened by freedom.” In this case, the responsibility of a manager is to provide the structure these people need to feel safe.

What shall I do with students who have only lived inside the fishbowl of authoritarian, hierarchical educational structures?

Maslow suggests that we meet people on the terms with which they are most comfortable first, and then only gradually bring them outside their comfort zone.

The answer is to meet them where they are familiar, and challenge them to move into areas of personal growth.

The famous Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, is a failure of empathy. Just because I would prefer to be working in a self-directed, egalitarian work environment does not mean that’s best or works well for others.

The Platinum Rule is to do unto others as they would have us do, and even that suffers from a certain defect. In my relationship with my students, I am the Leader. I am the expert. My judgment is superior to theirs, insofar as my understanding what they need to learn and do to become professionalized in the career of their choice (civil engineering). To adopt the Platinum Rule suggests that I allow them to dictate the terms of their education, which is foolhardy because they cannot possibly know what they must do to learn civil engineering.

There is an analogy in parenting. I’ve witnessed many of my faculty colleagues with young (3–5 years old) children, who somehow delegate the authority of bedtime, wardrobe, meal planning, or other decision functions to their kids.

The parent might say, “Time for bed, OK?” or “What do you want for dinner?”

If you ask a 4 year old to plan meals for herself, you’re going to wind up raising your kid on chicken nuggets, because the food scientists are much better at manipulating your child’s food preferences than you are. Then, as you grow increasingly dissatisfied with her meal choices, you might do the same thing some of my colleagues have done: negotiate, cajole, coerce, blackmail, or attempt to bribe their young children into making different choices. But somehow it never dawns on them that 4 year olds are not qualified to make the kinds of decisions that the parents are asking them to make. They don’t know when is a good time to go to bed. They don’t know what to wear to religious ceremonies, or a birthday party, or Grandma’s. They don’t understand nutrition and food preparation and healthy eating.

When parents thrust their children into the role of being the executives of their own lives, using either Golden Rule (“It’s how I want people to treat me!”) or the Platinum Rule (“It’s what she says she wants!”) they abdicate their responsibility to serve as Leaders.

I am in a hierarchical relationship with my students. I am the Leader. I have a moral responsibility to attend to their personal and professional growth, even if they don’t like homework, or class presentations, or terms papers, or any other assignment.

Maslow taught me that as the Leader, my moral responsibility is to meet them where they are — to communicate in terms with which they are familiar enough to understand — and only then to challenge them to move up Maslow’s hierarchy.