At first glance, it humanizes management theory, by acknowledging that all people have needs that must be satisfied. If not, then satisfaction and motivation would suffer, ultimately hurting the organization’s performance.
As the pyramid theory made its way into the training of generations of managers, it became the go-to model when companies and organizations were faced with motivation problems. People are grumpy on the job? stop leaving work late? Well, then some layer of the pyramid must be unfulfilled! Just find it, fix it, define an action plan and all we be fine again. (And do not forget to write an article for the Harvard Business Review about how you put management theory in practice).
Were people grumpy because they could not breathe in their lugubrious workshops? Then the issue lay at the base of the pyramid. Were they complaining because they felt treated like animals? Then we were around the middle. Were they struggling to grasp the meaningfulness of their job? Then we were nearing the apex. In each case, the diagnostics was clear-cut and the cure was at hand.
Why topple such a nice pyramid?
Because we forgot something in the process. I cannot count the number of colleagues in organizations large and small, who at one point or another explained to me “what motivates people” or “what people are lacking in order to be really motivated”.
Among them, the most cynical ones would always return to the ultimate belief that “people work for money”. The most enlightened ones would be striving to bring “meaning” to other people’s work, citing the famous cathedral metaphor: “Here, we want cathedral builders, not just people axe-picking rock”.
What they forgot, what we all forgot, was to talk to the people in question. The Maslow pyramid pushed us to eschew the bureaucratic model, in which people are treated like objects. That was a good thing. But we let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction. We end up applying a psychologizing model, by which we think we can read other people’s minds without talking to them directly.
At that point, the Maslow pyramid becomes counterproductive. It becomes a feel-good justification for management decisions. But even when those decisions are honestly meant to improve motivation and performance, they carry the original sin of having been inferred from what managers think people think.
Listen to them!
All this matters because motivation issues are usually deep-reaching issues. True causes are not easily identified. Not talking to the people involved is therefore a sadly lost opportunity.
Managers are universally busy, some of them are not natural-born communicators. All this conspires to try and solve human problems without the humans in question. If on top of that they have been trained in the Maslow theory, then they may confidently follow false leads and try false solutions. As a former mentor commented: “Bring in someone to motivate me, and you will de-motivate me right away”.
Ultimately, not listening to your reports is not only a lost opportunity, we believe it is even a lack of respect. You may disagree with this ethical element. But even in that case, at least for performance’s sake, please make and effort and listen more to the people who rely on you.