Leadership Development – Maslow, Motivation and Cultural Differences

When talking about leaders and leadership it’s not very long before motivation as a topic arrives in the discussion and when you ask people what they know about motivation,  Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs will show up fairly soon.  There may be some discussion about whether his name’s pronounced “Maslov” or “Masloe”, some head scratching about what order the categories come in and possibly some sniggering about whether or not Sex is really a basic physiological need but generally we take it as the basic truth about human motivation.  The problem is many cultures do not see the world that way and as we find ourselves in emerging markets some of our truths may need to be challenged or questioned.

The key issue or dimension of culture here is how people view themselves and their role and relative value in society.  Geert Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars both use an Individualism v Collectivism dimension in their models of culture.  This addresses people’s thinking about teams and individuals including which is more important and how to measure achievement.

Maslow was brought up in the USA, a classic Individualist culture.  Thus the top of the pyramid is Self Actualisation – you’ve made it when you have achieved your personal potential and discovered the real you.  People from more Collectivist cultures find this strange.  What about your contribution to your group, team, tribe or society?  Surely that is a higher purpose than this selfish notion of achievement?  Even the the lower order Belonging and Safety needs are in service of “me” not “them” – and Esteem is, of course, entirely about me and my value in the eyes of others.  The strong US focus on Individualism perhaps explains why team sports are more about groups of individual star performers and why “Show and Tell” doesn’t work in a UK classroom – our mothers told us not to show off…and to always say it was the team not me that deserves the prize.

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