Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington

Abraham Maslow:
Father of Enlightened Management

By Edward Hoffman
An Article in Training Magazine, September 1988, pages 79-82.


Perhaps more than any American psychologist of the past half-century, Abraham Maslow has affected how we view ourselves. Although he is well-known as the originator of the concept that bears his name, Maslow's hierarchy of needs, that's only a part of his legacy. His provocative ideas about motivation, self-actualization and synergy have become familiar concepts to many managers, management theorists and trainers. His humanistic approach to psychology has influenced fields as diverse as counseling, health care, education and marketing.

Yet all too often, his approach is distorted and misinterpreted, even by his staunchest advocates. This year, the 80th anniversary of his birth, is a good time to highlight Maslow's influential managerial ideas and help clarify his views.

Maslow was born in New York City in 1908, the oldest child of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Because his father was a successful small businessman, Abe, as everyone called him-worked only occasionally in positions such as delivery boy and hotel busboy. It gave him lots of leisure time in his teenage years, which he spent reading. Eventually, he developed strong idealistic notions and decided to dedicate himself to bettering the world through science. After floundering a bit at New York's City College and Cornell University, he chose to major in psychology and transferred to the University of Wisconsin in 1928.

At Wisconsin Maslow was trained as an experimental psychologist. All his professors were fervent behaviorists who believed that meaningful theories of human nature could best be developed by studying lower animals like white rats in laboratory settings. Although Maslow subscribed to this view for a time, he decided that monkeys made better research subjects because of their similarity to our own species. His doctoral research examined dominance and sexual behavior in monkeys' social order. Returning to New York City in the mid-1930s, Maslow landed a faculty position at Brooklyn College. He taught courses and continued his research, although he shifted his focus from monkeys to humans. His pi pioneering studies of women's sexuality preceded Alfred Kinsey's famous sexological studies by several years, and influenced Kinsey and others. "I thought that working on sex was the easiest way to help mankind," Maslow later recalled. "If I could discover a way to improve the sexual life by even 1 percent, then I could improve the whole species."

In 1938, at the behest of his friends Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, both anthropologists at Columbia University, Maslow conducted field work among Canada's Blackfoot Indians. The experience convinced him that we can learn much from studying the daily lives of people in other cultures. It also convinced him that people around the world are far more alike than they are different, and that we all share certain inborn needs and drives. These conclusions began to guide his research on emotional security as a trait that has a profound impact on our social relations. But how to organize all these observations into a coherent theory of personality? In trying to do so, Maslow studied the writings of European psychological thinkers such as Alfred Adler, Erich Fromm, Karen Horny and Max Wertheimer.

During the 1940s, Maslow steadily advanced a new explanation of human nature. Its foundation was his radical theory of motivation, which has come to be known as the hierarchy of needs. He contended that we all have needs for physical safety, belongingness, love, self-respect, self-esteem and what he called self-actualization-the desire to become all that we can become in life.

In articles published in 1942 and 1943, he outlined his theory. "It is quite true that man lives by bread alone-where there is no bread," he wrote. "But what happens to [our] desires when there [is] plenty of bread and when [our] belly is chronically filled? At once, other and `higher' needs emerge and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate [us]. And when these in turn are satisfied, again new and still `higher' needs emerge, and so on. This is what we mean by saying that basic human needs are organized into a hierarchy.... "

Although Maslow's theory has become tremendously influential, it initially attracted only modest attention. Maslow, undismayed, plunged into exploring the traits of self-actualizing men and women. He believed that only by studying emotionally healthy, achieving people can we really begin to understand our true nature and potential.

Maslow was excited by the prospect of such exploration, but in the mid-1940s he was stricken with intense fatigue and became too weak to teach. To support his family, he took a position as plant manager at the Maslow Cooperage, a branch of his brothers' family business in rural Pleasanton, CA. His brothers wanted to give him an easy job in a peaceful setting, and their plan worked admirably. His workday consisted of supervising coopers who repaired wooden barrels for a nearby winery. When he recovered from his mysterious illness, Maslow's brothers invited him to become a permanent partner of the company. He declined the offer, but his practical lessons at the Maslow Cooperage played an important role in his subsequent managerial theorizing.

He returned to teaching and research at Brandeis University near Boston, where he wrote Motivation and Personality, a brilliant and far reaching work published in 1954. "The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side," Maslow insisted. "It has revealed to us much about man's shortcomings, his illnesses, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations or his psychological health. It is as if psychology had voluntarily restricted itself to only half its rightful jurisdiction.... We must find out what psychology... might be, if it could free itself from the stultifying effects of limited, pessimistic and stingy preoccupations with human nature."

Motivation and Personality catapulted Maslow to national prominence. The book was widely acknowledged as a major psychological achievement of the 1950s. Its ideas, the hierarchy of needs and self-actualization-began to penetrate other realms, particularly the budding field of management theory. To many people interested in psychology and its practical applications in everyday life, Maslow's name began to stand for an innovative and optimistic approach to human nature.

Douglas McGregor, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was among those influenced by Maslow's work. McGregor's landmark book, The Human Side of Enterprise, published in 1960, highlighted two distinct managerial perspectives: Theory X, which views people as inherently lazy and selfish, and Theory Y, which regards them as innately productive and cooperative. In outlining Theory Y, McGregor clearly subscribed to Maslow's optimistic view of human nature.

Shortly thereafter Maslow was asked to observe a real-life testing of his theories at Non-Linear Systems (NLS), a high-tech company based in California. Its owner-entrepreneur Andy Kay, now associated with Kaypro Computers, organized the work environment around Theory-Y principles. Employee creativity, cooperation and self-direction were encouraged as much as possible. There was a strong emphasis on employee training and growth on the job. Teams of line workers helped determine daily work schedules and activities. There was even a "vice president for innovation."

The experiment was producing results: Absenteeism and turnover plummeted, while productivity and profits soared. But Maslow remained skeptical. He worried that NLS and its supporters were too readily embracing his ideas. In a diary note, he wrote, "They're being taken as gospel truth, without any real examination of their reliability, validity. The carryover from clinic to industry is really a huge and shaky step, but they're going ahead enthusiastically and optimistically... as if all the facts were in, and it was [already] proven."

During his stay at NLS, Maslow recorded his observations as well as his reactions to managerial books he was reading. Gradually a manuscript took form, its subjects ranging from methods of enhancing employee motivation to the psychology of leadership. He elaborated on the concept of synergy, which anthropologist Ruth Benedict originally had used in unpublished lectures in 1941 to refer to cultures in which cooperation is rewarded and advantageous to all. Benedict's notion was almost unknown except to Maslow, Margaret Mead and a few others who had known her personally. Now Maslow saw synergy as an underlying principle of management and human relationships in organizations. NLS was demonstrating that the company's and the employees' interests could converge through what Maslow called "enlightened management."

In 1965, this manuscript was published as Eupsychian Management (eupsychia was Maslow's term for the ideal society or organization). Despite the formidable title, the book brought Maslow praise from America's leaders in management education and training. Although gratified by the response, Maslow remained realistic-perhaps more so than some of his fans. He realized that the humanistic approach depends partly on good conditions and that a sudden downturn in the international economy or domestic markets might make the principles of enlightened management less tenable.

In the five years between Eupsychian Management and his death in 1970, Maslow enjoyed international renown as a founder of the rapidly growing movement to humanize the workplace. He was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1966. And he began work on a new theoretical concept: the "Theory-Z" approach to management. He intended to break new conceptual ground beyond McGregor's Theory-X and Theory-Y dichotomy.

In essence, Maslow contended that neither X nor Y is really accurate. He theorized that as people grow toward self-actualization, their psychological needs at work undergo a corresponding change. Salary increases alone, for example, don't mean much to those propelled by higher needs. The chance to be creative and autonomous becomes increasingly important as a job motivator. Maslow called this form of compensation "metapay." He began to collect job advertisements for engineers, executives, Peace Corps volunteers, and others to dramatize his belief that metapay and similar concepts were tacitly being recognized and implemented in the American workplace.

Maslow would no doubt be pleased with the changes that have occurred in the workplace since his death in 1970. However, he probably would reject several aspects of "New-Age management" with which he is erroneously associated.

For one thing, Maslow did not view enlightened management as an organizational cure-all. Nor did he see it as a substitute for poor production or quality control. Speaking of contemporary organizations, Maslow declared, "If the product they turn out is not good, then [enlightened management] will destroy the whole enterprise, as truth will generally destroy untruth and fakery.... [Enlightened] management works only for virtuous situations, where everybody trusts the product and can identify with it and be proud of it.... If the product is not good and must be concealed and faked and lied about, then only Theory-X managers, customers and sales people are possible."

Second, Maslow frequently reminded trainers and others that in our embrace of humanistic ideals, we ought not lose sight of the simple fact that people have different motivational needs. He readily acknowledged that some employees are not seeking to self-actualize in the workplace; fulfillment for them lies elsewhere. Humanistically minded managers and trainers who attempt to force their idea of self-actualized traits and values upon employees may well produce resistance and resentment-especially when they try to "align" the whole package with the current goals of some particular corporation.

But Maslow was ultimately an optimist. "The old-style management is steadily becoming obsolete," he declared. "The more psychologically healthy [people get], the more will enlightened management be necessary in order to survive in competition, and the more handicapped will be an enterprise with an authoritarian policy.... That is why I am so optimistic about [enlightened] management... why I consider it to be the wave of the future."


Edward Hoffman, Ph.D., is a New York City psychologist and author of The Right to Be Human: A Biography of Abraham Maslow, recently published by Tarcher/St. Martin's Press.


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