Eupsychian Assumptions about “the Individual”

In my last post, I wrote about Maslow’s assumptions about “enlightened management.”  Abraham Maslow was a ground-breaking psychologist who established the “third wave” of psychology (after Freud’s psychoanalytic and Skinner’s operant conditioning approaches).  Maslow was interested in what made for psychologically “healthy” individuals, and is often credited with being the founder of the Human Potential Movement. In any case, Maslow the psychologist became very interested in “enlightened management policy” in the late 50s and early 60s, and studied management scholars like Peter Drucker and Douglas McGregor, and industrial psychologists like Rensis Likert and Chris Argyris.  He was trying to ferret out the “assumptions” underlying this new management approach, much in the same way that McGregor delineated the assumptions underlying the thinking of Theory X and Theory Y approaches to management.  As Maslow studied, and more importantly, as he witnessed the attempt by Alan Kay at Non Linear Systems, to put “enlightened management policy” into practice, he compiled a list of assumptions he felt necessary for that management approach to work.

The list of 36 assumptions is from a journal he kept in 1962.  The assumptions are not categorized, or ordered, in any particular way.  Rather, they have an impromptu flow about them.  For my purposes of digging deeper into these assumptions, and their links to the Gore culture, I will roughly lump Maslow’s assumptions into several  main categories:  assumptions about “the individual,” assumptions about “relationships,” assumptions about “teamwork”, assumptions about “organizational practice,” and a last category of musings.  In this post, I’ll focus on assumptions about “the individual.”

The individual as “whole person,” not “object.”  In an eloquent sentence, Maslow captures the essence of the assumption about the individual in enlightened management practice:  “Everyone prefers to feel important, needed, useful, successful, proud, respected, rather than unimportant, interchangeable, anonymous, wasted, unused, expendable, disrespected.”  We want to be “whole persons,” not “a part, a thing or implement, or tool, or ‘hand.’”   We want to be actors rather than acted upon—“prime movers” rather than “objects.”  Especially, we want to be valued for our “uniqueness as a (human) being” and not interchangeable.  Sadly, in most organizations, the individual is treated more as an “object” rather than as a unique “person.”

At Gore, I think it is fair to say that many if not most Associates generally experience themselves and their fellow Associates as “unique persons” capable and encouraged to initiate responsible action.  A phrase that you often hear at Gore is people asking themselves, and others, “what is the unique contribution I can make to the success of the Enterprise?”  That sense of “what can I do uniquely well—given my talents, interests, experiences, personality that actively helps the Enterprise succeed—is powerful.  And given that the focus is on the “unique” contributions one can make, the individual thinks of himself or herself as a “whole person” who genuinely can bring their “whole self” to work.

The individual as a “responsible contributor.”  Maslow posits a number of assumptions about the capacity of the individual to contribute.  In general, healthy people would rather “create” than “destroy.”  They would rather be “interested” than “bored.”   They would rather be “responsible” than “dependent.”  They would prefer meaningful work to meaningless work.  Indeed, they would prefer work to being idle.  They have the tendency to improve things, straighten up, fix up, not walk by a mess or a problem. They have an “impulse to achieve” and the tendency to “self-actualization.”   Therefore, it’s not a surprise that, when treated as a person and a responsible contributor, they want to cooperate and collaborate and help in the achievement of Enterprise goals.

The individual is “healthy enough.”  Although Maslow believes in the inherent potential of the humans person, he is not so much an idealist that he believes that all people at all times exhibit the same potential.  Whether a specific person at a specific time is capable of “enlightened management policy” is up for grabs, which is why Maslow is trying to identify as assumptions required for this  enlightened management policy to work.  For Maslow, in part, being “healthy enough” means the individual is not stuck in a place where they are “fixated” on lower-level needs (like safety and security).  They have to be “courageous” enough to withstand uncertainty, and to be responsible for themselves.  They have to not be “nonpsychopathological.”  Maslow makes two important caveats:  Not all people are at a sufficient level of “maturity” (in his sense) that they are beyond lower level needs.  And even for those who are, there is always dialectic between “defense” and “growth.”  There can be good in people, and there can be evil.  We should assume that for every positive trend, there is an existing negative trend.  People show courage, but have fear.  People want to grow and be responsible.  People want to coast and not be responsible.  This is reality.  As Maslow says, “The question is, which is the strongest in the particular person at the particular time under the particular circumstances?”

Thus, for Maslow, one of the key organizational practices key for the success of “enlightened management practice” is hiring the “right” people.

Bill Gore, like Maslow, was a realist when it came to his understanding of people.  Yes, each individual had inherent potential.  But not all potential was achieved.  Bill understood that the “perfect” practice of the Gore culture was never going to be achieved “perfectly,” because, among other things, there was this thing he called “human frailties,” our real inability to “be our best all the time.”  And so, for Bill, the idea was not to create a culture that had everyone achieving their full potential.  The challenge was to create a culture that had everyone (on average) achieving more of their potential than in another environment.  If the increase in potential manifested was sufficiently great, the culture could be a significant basis for competitive advantage.

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