Motivating Employees: Maslow vs. Machiavelli

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    All managers and organizations have their philosophies about how to motivate employees and manage their teams. Some seek to create cooperation and loyalty. Others rely more on the competitive spirit to get things done. And the truth is different approaches can work, but it’s important to understand what kind of work environment you’re creating with your approach. So the question is: Are you more Maslow or Machiavelli.

    Are You More Maslow or Machiavelli?
    These two paradigms are familiar to many in the business world, but they represent very different ways of managing people.

    Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that people have certain requirements that have to be met before they can be truly fulfilled. In the workplace, this theory demands attending to the needs of each employee. Making enough money to live, job security, belonging to a team, excelling at a job, and doing meaningful work are all motivating factors. The idea is that if employees are happy at work, they’ll be more creative and produce more.

    The Machiavellian style is very different. It states that it is better to be feared than loved. Rules are strict and punishments are harsh. Employees are motivated by fear of losing their jobs, but also by the yen to beat the competition. It produces a program of survival of the fittest that attracts people who can think on their feet and get the job done regardless of circumstances. And it’s an efficient way of shedding dead weight.

    Which Model is Better for Business?
    We all know of instances where both styles are used. Most lists of the best places to work are full of companies that take a more Maslow-oriented approach. Google is often at the top of these lists with a huge sports complex, subsidized massages, free food, and a company mission statement that everyone seems to be able to get behind. And who can argue with Google’s success?

    But we’ve all seen glimpses into the white collar marketing and financial worlds where productivity means survival. You’re either rising or falling and every coworker is vying for the same promotion you are. These companies have impressive balance sheets of their own and it’s obvious why the best and brightest would embrace a chance to shoot for the stars.

    Maslow’s approach is great for building team unity, loyalty, and stability. But it’s susceptible to employee complacency and cliché, in-the-box thinking. A Machiavellian regime can be very effective to push employees to great heights of creativity and production at an individual level. But know they’re only on board as long as your goals are aligned with theirs.

    So which way is better? That depends on your goals. Maslow’s approach is much better at promoting strong teams. This is important if your business relies on a great deal of cooperation. It also gives you a chance to groom future leaders who you expect to stick around for the long haul. The Machiavellian way is effective where individual performance is key. Employees may not work cooperatively but they can learn by seeing how others succeed … or fail.

    Can There Be Balance?
    The truth is, most managers recognize the need for a balanced approach. We use a combination of policies designed to build employees up and light a fire under them when they need it. If we do this well, unity and security can coexist with vigilance and audacious creativity. The key is to find a way to strike this balance without becoming wildly inconsistent. It takes wisdom to know when to give and when to take away — especially as markets and technologies, and therefore work policies, change.

    So can a manager consistently be output oriented without forgetting the value of human assets? … Balance tenure with performance? … Promote teamwork and individual excellence at the same time? One thing is certain — it’s easier said than done.

    Matthew Goyette, MBA