Is it time for business to move on from the ‘us and them’ theory of management? Time to appreciate Maslow’s Theory of Motivation as he intended, as an aid to understanding, not a tool to increase productivity? I believe so.


A paradigm is a model, context, frame, concept, pattern or view. It guides thought, behaviour, study, research and opinion. Consider the ‘flat earth’ paradigm. If that is the prevailing model or view of the world, then everything must be made to fit that model. All thought and behaviour is bent towards supporting that model. It is the settled position, the certainty that humans crave. Until, that is, so many anomalies arise that the model can no longer be supported, it cannot be true. At that point a new model is required, a new certainty is sought. In this case that the world is a sphere. There has been a ‘paradigm shift’. So, paradigms are very important to the human species, they give us the understanding that we need, a position of truth. They are an act of belief based on our knowledge at the time. Just like any belief, we follow them blindly, sub-consciously, and we reject all doubt.

Disparity Model of Society

Just like the earth, we can have different paradigms for society, the way humans live together. We can describe a paradigm in terms of its characteristics, what it looks like and how it works. I am going to describe a concept I call the Disparity Model of society. The transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer brought with it the first human settlements around areas of fertile land. For the first time, land had real value and ownership of the land conveyed status and power. This has not changed since those times. As populations grew, there was insufficient fertile land for every individual to own a piece. This heralded the emergence of the owner/worker relationship in society. Fast forward to more modern times with ever expanding populations and the importance of land ownership becomes more and more significant. In many nations, land ownership is restricted to the ruling class, to be dispensed in return for loyalty and support. The concentration of land ownership heightened the distinction between a minority of owners and a majority of workers, a concept defined as ‘feudalism’.

The next major developments in society after agriculture were manufacture and trade. Manufacture requires resources, either animate such as wool or inanimate such as iron ore. Either way, the availability of resources is closely linked to the ownership of land. Trade requires ships, or carts or camels, all of which implies ownership. In all aspects of society, we now have examples of the disparity between owners and workers. Move forward to industrialisation, the powered machine age, probably the biggest creator of disparity after land ownership. Industry requires resources, including maybe the most important of all, capital. To me, capitalism is the natural extension of feudalism and the introduction of money as a replacement for barter to facilitate trade. Capitalism is not the cause of disparity; it is the result. Alongside all these productive areas of commerce came the supportive businesses of the service sector, banking, insurance, professional services, health, education and so on. All of these businesses are owned, either by individuals, shareholders or the state. In many nations, the state is a significant owner, employing large numbers of the population. In all these areas of society one common factor emerges, a minority of those in control compared to a majority of those employed. We recognise this disparity in many relationships, master/servant, employer/employee, leader/led, officers/soldiers or sailors or airmen/women, rulers/ruled, directors/directed, we have class systems and castes, gentry and commoners, upstairs and downstairs. This is the basis of the Disparity Model of society, a paradigm which includes the disparity between the manager and the managed.

Disparity Motivation

Motivation is the ‘will’ part of delivering a goal. Combined with ability it becomes the determinant of personal productivity. Whilst motivation is important in all aspects of life, I want to focus on its impact on business. Productivity in business is of crucial importance, not only for the owners but also for the employees. It is productivity that produces wealth, that makes the value of output greater than the cost of input. This generation of wealth is what enables the whole of society to progress, to be safer, healthier, and happier. There are, of course, arguments about the fair distribution of wealth that need to be resolved but the fact remains that, if no wealth is generated, there is no wealth to distribute. Overall productivity in business depends on much more than personal productivity, but it will always be an important contributor. The link between the Disparity Model and motivation is the manager/managed relationship.

The earliest theories of management were developed in response to the challenges of the industrial revolution and became known as Classical theories. The 3 best known were those of Weber, Fayol and Taylor. In essence, all 3 proposed variations of ‘command and control’ wherein work was highly defined and organised and employees had little influence other than as part of the production process. This approach was aimed at maximising productivity, treating humans as little more than machines and consistent with the Disparity model, emphasising the difference between managers and workers. These theories did not directly address motivation, other than to assume that money was the sole motivator and that rewards should include ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.’

In terms of strictly motivational theories, the game-changer was Maslow’s. His theory emerged from his interest in clinical psychology and not an interest in industrial productivity. His work was seized on by management theorists to propose additional tools that managers could use to increase motivation and thereby productivity in the workforce. This approach is consistent with the Disparity model, the idea that workers need to be motivated and it is a manager’s role to do the motivating. There is so much more to Maslow’s theory than his Hierarchy of Needs, but that is what will throw some light on the cause of Disparity. (To find out more about Maslow’s theory, visit this site ) Maslow proposed that human needs act as motivators within an order of precedence and that ‘lower’ needs must be satisfied before ‘higher’ needs come into play. The lower needs are those of survival, physical and safety needs. He argues that those needs must be met, not necessarily in full, before the needs of self-esteem and self-actualisation become motivational. Throughout most of the period described above the majority were struggling just to meet their survival needs, the minority had those needs consistently gratified and aspired to satisfy their higher, self-needs. So, there was a real difference between the manager and the managed, the gratification of survival needs. Hence, Disparity.

Equity Model of Society

As the great 20th century philosopher, Bob Dylan, once said, ‘the times they are a-changin’. Paradigm shift sounds dynamic, as though it happens overnight, but not so. Shifts in understanding and perception take many years to gain ground and can go unnoticed. It is only when sufficient anomalies are evidenced that a shift is accepted. It has taken hundreds of years for society to change in the direction that, I believe, has resulted in the need for a revised model, the Equity model. The change began with the onset of democracy. I am talking here about modern representative democracy at the level of the nation state, rather than pre-historic democracy or city-state democracy in the Greek style. Representative democracy originated in the Roman Empire and, either through evolution or revolution, some 57% of the world’s population were part of such democracies by the year 2000. The important aspects of democracy for this proposed shift relate to the concept of ‘government by the people, for the people’ and the associated development of human rights and equality. On its own, democracy is not enough to undo the Diversity model. Also relevant is economic growth. Whether there is a connection between democracy and economic growth is a moot point but, for sure, growth there has been. By way of example, GDP in the UK has grown from £11.4 billion in 1948 to £2.2 trillion in 2019. The third element of change is distribution of wealth. In a social democracy, the wealth of the nation is used, at least in part, to provide a range of services that assure survival for all its citizens. Health, education and welfare all provided as needed, as are armed forces and law enforcement. The net result of these combined changes over the long term is not to remove the disparity of either ownership or wealth. It is to remove the Disparity and replace it with Equity of survival needs gratification.

Equity Motivation

To return to Maslow, his theory suggests that gratification of physical and security needs permits the emergence of the higher motivational goals, in particular the self-goals of esteem and identity, purpose, meaning, creativity and realisation of potential. Add to this the growth in rights, freedom and opportunity brought about by economic growth and we now have a very different context for the world of employment. There is no difference between the motivational goals of managers and managed. A different approach to the role of management is required, one that recognises this altered paradigm. Maslow’s theory can be used to understand the requirements of this new paradigm, rather than just be seen as a management tool for increasing productivity. The new approach must recognise that, in the Equity model, every individual is self-motivated, they do not need to be motivated by someone else, that each individual develops their own stable sense of purpose and principles in pursuit of their own chosen goals. People now have the freedom and security to pursue what they really care about, what they believe is really important. What does that mean in practice?

A business must start by understanding its own purpose and principles, why it does what it does and what it stands for. This has to be real, not just for the sake of appearance. Recruitment practices must change to find people who share that purpose and principles so that they are already motivated by the same goals and will fit in with the culture. Yes, knowledge, skills and aptitude are important but they are of little use without the necessary motivation. Then it is a matter of providing the necessary resources, facilities and support to enable people to deliver, to encourage creativity, innovation and change, to give authority and responsibility and the power to decide, the freedom to consult and collaborate. Combine this with plenty of communication, information and feed-back so that everyone knows what progress is, or is not, being made. Success is never guaranteed but this approach should give the best opportunity to achieve everyone’s goals.

Sounds implausible? The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed many examples of what can be achieved when people come together with shared purpose, what their own motivation can deliver in pursuit of shared goals. No-one told them to do what they have done, no-one had to motivate them. Here’s just one example. Maybe some of these lessons will stick and we won’t revert to Disparity.