Why Work Levels Are Rejected: Others Are Selfish Fallacy

Forrest ChristianManaging, Motivation, Theory Leave a Comment

While reading the excellent and highly recommended book by Heath & Heath, Made to Stick, I came upon this passage about Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs:

Imagine that a company offers its employees a $1,000 bonus if they meet certain performance targets. There are three different ways of presenting the bonus to employees:

  1. Think of what that $1,000 means: a down payment on a new car or that new home improvement you’ve been wanting to make.
  2. Think of the increased security of having that $1,000 in your bank account for a rainy day.
  3. Think of what the $1,000 means: the company recognizes how important you are to its overall performance. It doesn’t spend money for nothing.

When people are asked which positioning would appeal to them personally, most of them say No. 3. It’s good for the self-esteem — and, as for No. 1 and No. 2, isn’t it kind of obvious that $1,000 can be spent or saved? Most of us have no trouble visualizing ourselves spending $1,000. (It’s a bit less common to find people who like to visualize themselves saving.)

Here’s the twist, though: When people are asked which is the best positioning for other people (not them), they rank No. 1 most fulfilling, followed by No. 2. That is, we are motivated by self-esteem, but others are motivated by down payments. This single insight explains almost everything about the way incentives are structured in most large organizations.


In other words, a lot of us think everyone else is living in Maslow’s basement — we may have a penthouse apartment, but everyone else is living below.

[Chip Heath and Dan Heath. 2007. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Random House. Pp. 184-185. Emphases in the original.]

One of the things that Stratified Systems Theory / Requisite Organization / Work Levels requires of managers is the belief that people are much like they are. They aren’t entirely greedy or selfish or slackers. (When Luc Hoebeke says that “all front-line workers are lazy” he means that they are smart enough not to want to do more work than it takes to get something done, rejecting useless busy-ness.) But we all believe that everyone else is a fool while we are wise.

Getting a manager to see that workers aren’t motivated by money is extremely difficult. We are motivated by fairness, that you should give me what others like me got for the same work, but we are driven by many of the same needs, farther up Maslow’s pyramid. SST/RO (EJ/WB?) pushes the idea that workers can know what is fair, want to work, are not motivated so simply.

Then again, maybe most managers are indeed only motivated by money, and only their subordinates are motivated by higher needs. But that breaks down logically, doesn’t it?

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