How does the general orientation offered by Maslow’s theory of self-actualization fit into the HRM culture?

A short discussion

Essay, 2004

9 Pages, Grade: 1,3




Analysis and Evaluation
The HRM paradigm
Socio - historical emergence
Processes of enabling
Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ and his theory of ‘self-actualization’

Conclusions and other notes
Notes (not included in word count)



This essay will concentrate on the phenomenon of Human Resource Management and how Maslow’s theory of self-actualisation fits into its current form. The HRM’s historical rise will be described in terms of ‘soft-capitalism’ as a solution to the ’problem of work’. Hence, the movement away from managing the objects of work to managing the subject of work, i.e. the worker, will be shown. Furthermore, I will highlight the processes of its emergence and its acceptability in a cultural framework, which will use Foucault’s concept of ‘discursive formations’ and his ideas of ’power/knowledge’ as well as ‘governmentality’. Maslow’s concept of self-actualisation and hierarchy of needs will be unpacked in term of his original work and the ideas that he has pushed into the HRM discourse. A critical assessment will be made by throwing some light on the ambivalence that lies between hypothetical assumptions and the scientific evidence, before its contemporary viewpoint will be reset in terms of HRM culture. In terms of this essay, its function as a technique of inscribing reality and thus acting upon it will be highlighted rather than elaborating on its implications for the motivation discourse (even though these aspects are interrelated). It will be argued that the subject-focused version of Maslow’s work is merely another technique of rendering the subject manageable. The translation of the subjective into the ‘objective’ categories of the model will be provided by the normative structure which in turn will also be provided by the dogmatic structure of ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity’.

The HRM paradigm

Human Resource Management is, according to many authors, the selection, appraisal, training, development and remuneration of organizational inputs -employees- to deliver the required output of labour (Townley, 1993). Briefly, it is the management of a resource: the human. Despite being self-evident, self-explanatory -as the natural order of things- it is not long ago that work was organized without any notions of ‘motivation’, ‘self-actualization’ or a ’human resource’. HRM is a phenomenon of the last two decades and though it is undoubtedly part of our (western) current social reality, this fact raises some interesting questions: Is HRM the result of a natural order of things? Does it represent a continuous development in the evolution of human society? Were humans always manageable? Or has only the way we conceptualize ourselves, the way we make sense of the world, of work and power relations -our mythi- has changed?

To fully comprehend the phenomenon of HRM, its socio-historical emergence as well as the enabling processes has to be understood. I will investigate the historical emergence of ‘soft- capitalism’ as an answer to the ‘problem of work’, leading to a predominant work ethic of ‘self-work’ and the ‘turn to life’. It is this socio-cultural context that enabled the emergence/production of HRM. Then, the enabling processes of this development will be examined, drawing onto Foucault’s concepts of ‘discursive formation’, ‘power/knowledge’ and ‘governmentality’

Socio - historical emergence

With the rise of ‘Scientific Management’ (Taylor, Fayol) at the beginning of the 20th century, work was organised in a ‘scientific way’, leading to a fragmentation of work. The work tasks (the objects of work) were diminished in such a way that workers job roles with minimal variation and responsibility and without any connection to the final product. That the organisation of work in such a way does not derive much satisfaction or meaning should be self- explanatory (Watson, 2002. See also Marx’ notion of ‘alienation’). Consequently, so called ‘modernity’ developed the separation of the ‘private’ and the ‘public’ spheres, which encountered the agenda by the 1960’s as ‘the problem of work’, denoting the loss of the meaning of work (Heelas, 2002). The private sphere was now the one the worker drew meaning from and could ‘be himself, while the ‘public’ sphere was rather seen as a mean to the end of private life, a place were ‘one plays a role’. Without the per se valuing of work, it was thought that people do not work as well as they could (Berger, 1964, in Heelas 2002). This development is thus contradicting the economic imperative of productivity and efficiency underlying the mass production/mass consumption culture. In addition, the culture of mass production/mass consumption has brought hedonism as the new principle of life. On one hand this serves as the cultural justification for capitalism, it also poses a problem, as the hedonistic way of living contradicts with desired behaviour at work (e.g. discipline, commitment, etc.) (Bell, 1976, in Heelas, 2002).

Another important cultural development that is closely related to the search for meaning and the hedonistic imperative is the ‘turn to life’ (Heelas, 2002). As other myths (e.g. religion) were abandoned, new ones were created, and one with currently much significance is the one of ‘subjective-life’: praising ‘life’ and the ‘self as the highest goods. While the ‘getting most out of life’ attitude goes well with the mass-consumption culture (‘you can have it all’), it also puts new demands on work: life is too precious to be wasted with meaningless work.

The answer to this problem was the rise/production of ‘soft-capitalism’. ‘Soft-capitalism’ draws upon so called ‘soft’ features of work (e.g. culture, creativity, etc.) rather than just applying cost- benefit calculations (Ray and Sayer 1999, in Heelas 2002). This ‘infusion of culture’ into the workplace served various effects: It blurred the line between ‘public’ and ‘private’ by making ‘work home and home work’ and ascribing a per se value to work by ‘positioning’ it as a way for personal growth and development and thus ‘bringing life back to work’ (ibid.). This resulted in ‘self-work ethics’ as a particular way (opposed to others that were perceived to have failed) of attaching meaning to work by seeing work as a way to personal growth and development rather than just a mean to an end (Heelas, 2002). What remained unchanged, however, was the core problem, a dissatisfying object of work. It is that state of society and perception of work, in which HRM -as the management of the subject of work- emerged. HRM could only emerge -and can only be understood- in this context.

Processes of enabling

However, this development was of course not as straightforward or cause-effect based as it might seem and it cannot be understood detached from its historical context. The processes enabling these cultural changes have to be examined on a much deeper level. To do this, I will draw on Foucault’s notions of discursive formations, power/knowledge, and ‘governmentality’. Foucault has shown that things we stopped questioning or are seen as self-evident are not necessarily ‘true’ or ‘natural’. Thus, things are not inevitably the way they are; they could be another way. He refused to accept these ‘taken for granted’ concepts and categories as given and drew attention to the underlying practices, techniques and procedures that create these concepts and categories (Townley 1993). In the example of HRM, it would be (for example) the notion of the manageable man that is to be challenged; one question would be: “What historic power/knowledge relations enabled this specific discourse about man as a resource?” For Foucault, knowledge is a matter of the social, historical and political conditions, under which statements (sentences, tables, maps, etc.) come to count as ‘true’ or ‘false’. In any given historical period we can write, speak or think about a given social object or practice (e.g. work- relations) only in certain specific ways. A discourse is whatever constraints -but also enables- writing, speaking and thinking (and thus being) within these historical limits. (McHoul and Grace 1993). For a better understanding, discourses can be broken down into four components, namely objects, operations (or enunciative modalities), concepts and theoretical options (or themes). ‘Objects’ are the things that are studied or produced. ‘Concepts’ are the terms and ideas that constitute the discipline’s language or “the way we talk about things”. ‘Enunciative Modalities’ are the methods and techniques or ‘ways of treating’ these objects or “what counts as true”. ‘Themes’ are the new assumptions, theories or hypotheses that develop as a result of the discourse (McHoul and Grace 1993, Costea and Crump 2004). It should now be apparent that discursive formations are producing our historical ‘truth’. The things we do and do not talk about and the way we talk about them, are all part of this production process. This production of a historical ‘truth’ is directly related to power:

“We are subject to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth” (Foucault 1980a:93, in McHoul and Grace 1993) To understand this notion of ‘power’, its relation to ‘knowledge’ is important:

“[...] Power and knowledge directly imply one another [...]. There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.”

(Foucault, 1977a:27, in McHoul and Grace 1993)

It is a reciprocal, mutually reinforcing relation of power-knowledge where ‘knowledge’ is the privilege of making a statement that passes among others as true; and this statement becomes ‘power’ when ‘the others’ take it as ‘true’ (and vice versa) (Allen 1999). Having elaborated this, Foucault’s concept of ‘governmentality’ will be used to illustrate how certain procedures and technologies (especially ‘technologies of the self)ii render the subjective manageable, not limiting this notion to national governments but by extending it to different forms of governing people (e.g. in enterprises). For Foucault, ‘modernity’ is not adequately described by the capitalistic mode of production only. Account has to be given to the underlying power relations and techniques that produce the modern individual so that it can be ‘inserted’ into this production process. This production process is dependent on bodies and what they do, in order to extract ‘time and labour’ from them (McHoul and Grace 1993). We are thus interested in the technologies and mechanisms that allow ‘time and labour’ to be extracted from workers, who are not physically constrained, have legal rights and are ‘free’ from direct control. For this, “[p]ower must act in such a way, that the subject of power disciplines him- or herself’ (McHoul and Grace 1993, Chapter 3: Power[1] ) or, in other words, government has to draw upon the self-regulatory capacities (‘technologies of the self) of the individual (Miller and Rose 1990). It is through the ‘normalizing’ and ‘shaping’ of these capacities, that humans can be governed in our current cultural context. Now, we have to understand how his ‘normalizing’ (rendering into knowledge) and ‘shaping’ (intervening) work. Prerequisite for managing (e.g. people, populations) is “[k]nowing an object in such a way that it can be governed” (Gane and Johnson 1993, p.75). Foucault calls these procedures that render reality into the domain of thought ‘political rationalities’. Then, thought has to be translated back into the domain of reality in order to enable intervention. This is referred to as ‘technologies of government’. Government depends upon “the construction of devices for the inscription of reality in a form where it can be debated and diagnosed” (Miller and Rose 1990, p. 7). Thus, the complex and unique subjective has to be translated into universally valid, ‘objective’ categories. Information (knowledge) is therefore not neutral; it is dependent upon these devices (e.g. statistics, models) and in fact is already a way of acting upon the real; it is power. The knowledge that arises from these technologies may or may not be ‘true’; the important point is that we consider it to be ‘true’ (McHoul and Grace 1993). The way we describe (talk about) the world, influences the way we see the world. Talking about a particular field in a particular way renders this new field thinkable, calculable and thus manageable. Hence the importance of language has to be stressed.

Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ and his theory of ‘self-actualization’

One such technology -as a way of inscribing and acting upon reality- is offered by Abraham H. Maslow (1908-1970). In 1943 he published a paper called “A Theory of Human Motivation” in which he outlined his ideas of a ‘hierarchy of needs’ and ‘self-actualization’. Maslow thought of motivation in terms of need satisfaction. He believed that human needs could be classified into five categories: The ‘physical needs’, the ‘safety needs’, the ‘love or belongingness needs’, the ‘esteem needs’ and finally the ‘need for self-actualization’. These needs are ordered according to their dominance. The physical needs (e.g. hunger, thirst, sex) are the most important ones and will dominate the organism as long as they are not gratified. Only if and when these needs are (at least partially) gratified, the next higher needs (i.e. the safety needs) will emerge. This “whole cycle [...] will repeat itself’ (Maslow 1970, p. 43) until the last stage is reached: self- actualisation. This was to become his most influential work. It implied that human motivation works by gratifying the needs for love, esteem and self-actualization (according to Maslow, the other two normally are satisfied in any peaceful society). However, we have to differentiate carefully between Maslow’s original work and the discourse that has entered current management and HRM theory. As we shall see, the model we now associate with Maslow is much more linear, simple and unproblematic (from a HRM practitioner’s point of view) than his original implications for motivation, work-relations and society. I will not go into much detail describing the so well known ‘triangle’. I will instead highlight some important features that tend to be ‘forgotten’ when talking about Maslow’s model in order to demonstrate the ‘reality creating’ effect of discourses (not only through telling a certain story, but also through not telling certain parts of the story). I then will consider some problematic aspects of Maslow’s work before turning to its current version and its relation to HRM. Maslow’s starting point was the conceptualisation of a psychology concerned with the ‘healthy’ rather than with the ‘sick’ individual (Maslow 1970). His idea about mankind was rather optimistic, as he believed in the possible ‘improvement’ of the individual and society (ibid., e.g. p. 257). His work is somehow problematic as it is neither purely psychological (i.e. based of ‘scientific evidence’) nor philosophical (in terms of a coherent, thought-out concept). He developed his ideas quite independent from experimental studies; instead he was influenced by his idea of how humans are (or should be) and by the work of various colleagues, from which he picked whatever fitted his picture. He described his work as “an effort to integrate into a single theoretical structure that partial truth [he] saw in Freud, Adler, Jung, [...] and Goldstein” (Maslow 1970, preface xi). This interpretation is also shared by Wilson (1972, p.163) who attributes the love needs to Freud, the esteem needs to Adler (whose work on dominance had great influence on Maslow) and the final level to Goldstein (who actually coined the phrase ‘self-actualization’). Maslow merely picked the points he liked to synthesize them into his own theory. In this ‘thought dimension’, Maslow, while unquestionably concerned with the ‘growth’ of the individual, did not fail to recognise constraints that are put onto the individual by the society surrounding it.


[1] I worked here with copies of the book (pop loan), and unfortunately the page numbers were not copied.

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How does the general orientation offered by Maslow’s theory of self-actualization fit into the HRM culture?
A short discussion
Lancaster University
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This essay will concentrate on the phenomenon of Human Resource Management and how Maslow's theory of self-actualisation fits into its current form. The HRM's historical rise will be described in terms of 'soft-capitalism' as a solution to the 'problem of work'. Hence, the movement away from managing the objects of work to managing the subject of work, i.e. the worker, will be shown. Single spaced
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BBA Hons European Management Hakan Goektuerk (Author), 2004, How does the general orientation offered by Maslow’s theory of self-actualization fit into the HRM culture?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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