Monday, February 19, 2007

The Secret of Greatness: Motivations

Maslow's hierarchy of needsI wanted to explore an unanswered question left behind in the article "The Secret of Greatness" featured a while ago on Fortune Magazine: University of Michigan business school professor Noel Tichy puts it after 30 years of working with managers, "Some people are much more motivated than others, and that's the existential question I cannot answer - why..."
I linked the picture on the right from a Wikipedia entry on the Maslow's hierarchy of needs. In very short terms, Abraham Maslow's theory is that the needs at the bottom of the pyramid are "deficiency" needs that must be met before one can conquer the growth needs at the top.

There are some counter positions to his theory in the Wikipedia entry but I could still relate to its implications to the corporate world:

Physiological needs are a mixed bag. On the positive side, companies will try their best to provide the infrastructure required to meet those needs while you are within the company premises; on the negative side, excessive workloads may get in the way of (healthy) food and sleep.

Safety needs are another mixed bag. Companies worry about your safety for obvious reasons such as liabilities in case of accidents and loss of productivity due to lost days of work. They will also partner with other companies to provide many forms of insurance, most notably health insurance. On the other side, and here is the first red flag, employment safety is long gone.

Love/belonging: Your employer is definitely not responsible for the "love" part :-) even if your life partner works for the company. However, there is a level of friendship and camaraderie associated with non-romantic office relationships that are sometimes nurtured by the corporate big brother, such as department outings, team events and commemorations.

Esteem: Here things get dicey as the company must turn to mid and long term action. Unlike the previous three categories, this one needs active participation from the employees and a continuous effort to sustain it. More interestingly, the company has a larger influence on this aspect because work represents the largest share of an employee's conscious time.

Maslow divides this category between lower and higher-level needs. The lower-level esteem needs pointed in Maslow's theory are fame, respect and glory; whereas the higher-level esteem needs are competence, confidence, and achievement. In that sense, a good manager should balance out the delivery of an award in front of the entire organization with the delivery of constant feedback on one's performance. If an award has not stirred you as much as before, it may not be depression settling in, but a sign that you have made a healthy move to higher-level esteem needs or even to the more interesting self-actualization needs.

Self-actualization. Here is what Maslow writes about self-actualizing people:
  • They embrace the facts and realities of the world (including themselves) rather than denying or avoiding them.
  • They are spontaneous in their ideas and actions.
  • They are creative.
  • They are interested in solving problems; this often includes the problems of others. Solving these problems is often a key focus in their lives.
  • They feel a closeness to other people, and generally appreciate life.
  • They have a system of morality that is fully internalized and independent of external authority.
  • They judge others without prejudice, in a way that can be termed objective.
If a company paid attention to the previous categories, it needs to be really prepared at this point. This is a risky zone where a dynamic employee tends to outgrow the employer's higher inertia. In my observation, there is a sweet spot of 2-3 years where the employer reaps the most benefits from self-actualizing employees, after which they must let the employee go. Yes, "let him go". The preferred choice is always to promote him to an area where he has expressed interest. The second choice is to encourage a transfer to an organization where those skills can be put to good use. Failing the first two choices, it usually does not get to the less desirable dismissal as this kind of people are in high-demand and will find a better position long before the employer even thinks about it.

Why 2-3 years? This is the point where all that spontaneity, creativity, and problem solving instincts will have outgrown the local processes and practices of the rest of the organization. At this point, that internalized system of morality and objectivity is starting to crystallize into dissatisfaction with the rest of organization, which will have entered a full-blown rationalization spree as to why improvements can only happen so fast.

Maslow's theory is a blueprint that can eventually offer an answer to Noel Tichy's straggling question, the "why". It also does a fantastic job of deconstructing self-inflicted illusions on what really motivates us.