Worker motivation - Did Maslow prove both McGregor and Drucker wrong?

Dr. Donna L. Roberts
Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsAndroidmarsexpress on wikimedia under he Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Douglas McGregor (1957) posited the influential Theory X and Theory Y classification of worker motivation in which he distinguished between two opposing categorizations of worker types. According to this perspective, based on a manager’s belief about the fundamental characteristics of workers, determinations for motivational tactics arise. Theory X holds that workers are lazy, lack initiative, require constant supervision and are motivated primarily by pay. This belief would necessitate a line of sight and management by directives approach. Conversely, Theory Y considers workers to be self-motivated, naturally hard working and eager to accept responsibility and challenge. Mangers who embrace this orientation trust their workers and provide guidance and coaching.

Alternatively, Peter Drucker (1954) proposed another influential management theory – Management By Objective (MBO) – which focused on leading by focusing on the end result rather than the process involved. According to this model workers are motivated by and understanding of and concentration on the end goal. Although different in focus and detail, these models both agree in the fundamental premise that there exists one “best” or “right” way to manage even a diverse workforce. They concur that effective management and, as a subset, effective motivation of workers, is dependent upon understanding and implementing the correct blanket process.

Abraham Maslow (1943) proposed a theory in great contrast to these aforementioned approaches. His well-known Hierarchy of needs identified five levels of human needs in hierarchical order – Physiological, Safety, Social, Self-Esteem and Self-Actualization – the striving for satisfaction of which serves to influence and motivate behavior. In general, according to Maslow, the individual will strive to satisfy the lowest level need that is currently unmet. As such, at any given time a group of different individuals will represent a variety of different levels of current need satisfaction. In this way, the different individuals will be motivated by different benefits, activities or endeavors based on their personal level of need satisfaction.
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This contrasts with the proposals of McGregor and Drucker by focusing on the individual rather than the process. According to Maslow, there can be no “one right way” to manage a whole group of people, because each individual is operating according to his/her own need hierarchy. Attention to the individual where they are subjectively and situationally will reveal the best way to manage or motivate that person but will not necessarily be effective with another individual. In other words, Maslow proposed that management approaches must be different and to some extent tailored person by person in order to motivate individuals according to their individual needs.

Specifically, in relation to the theories of McGregor and Drucker, Maslow (1965, pp.15) stated that, “People with higher order needs satisfied will respond to Theory Y and MBO. People who are afraid, who cannot identify with others, who are suspicious of others, who are uncertain of their jobs, who are unloved, who are not respected, who have unreasonable family lives, who are ostracized, orphaned, outside the group . . . cannot respond to Theory Y or MBO. Clearly different principles of management would apply to these different kinds of motivational levels."

Interestingly, Drucker himself even admitted to the superiority of Maslow’s conceptualization stating, “Malsow showed why both McGregor and I were dead wrong. He showed conclusively that different people have to be managed differently” (1998, p. 164).


Drucker, P. F. (1954). The practice of management. New York: Harper & Row.

Drucker, P. F. (Oct. 5, 1998). Forbes, p. 164.

 Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50 (4): 370–96. doi:10.1037/h0054346.

Maslow, A. H. (1965). Eupsychian Management: A Journal, pp. 15-16.

McGregor, D. (1957). The Human Side of Enterprise, Management Review, 46 (11). pp. 22-28.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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