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The Secret Knowledge of the World’s Best Entrepreneurs

In 1943, Abraham Maslow published "A Theory of Human Motivation" in Psychological Review, where he laid out his famous Hierarchy of Needs for the first time. No one paid any attention. But Maslow was different, and determined. He rejected the prevailing opinion that advancing psychology meant scrutinizing mental illness, so instead, he spent the next decade studying the most extraordinary people in society. Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass and the top 1% of college students became his subjects. In 1954 he released his findings in what would become one of the greatest classics of the social sciences, Motivation and Personality.

Everyone paid attention this time. His ideas were widely discussed and taught. In the decades since, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has been referenced so often that popular culture thinks of it as common sense. His framework swept the business community and changed the way executives thought about everything from employee evaluations to org charts.

But it’s real impact is only now coming to fruition, led by the worlds’ best entrepreneurs.

Motivation and Shifting Society

As with any framework, understanding what it means isn’t enough to put it to use, and applying it to management proved to be especially tricky. Why is it that some enterprises have employees who enjoy their work and identify with their company, while others have employees who feel like prisoners? Is it all about leadership? Is there a management technique that could switch an employee’s heart from one perspective to another?

Countless books tackled these questions, many of them citing ingenious psychological experiments, but no pat answers emerged. Today, most of those books seem quaintly dated, which actually gives us an important clue as to why the answers have been so elusive. Society itself has changed dramatically in the decades since 1954. Enlightened executives tried to figure out how to give their people the chance to “self-actualize” at work, but the whole while, society shifted around them and took the answers with it.

Knowing that the only constant is change, some entrepreneurs and executives formed associations so they could network and better respond to these shifts in real-time. RESULTS.com has a long history with one of them, the Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO). It gained influence under the tutelage of Verne Harnish, who wrote a book directly related to this story.

The Rockefeller Habits, published in 2002 and updated in Scaling Up, might get closer to the “management technique” that could switch an employee’s heart than any other. It wasn’t a psychological framework like the Hierarchy of Needs, but rather a set of guidelines for business leaders, ranging from core values to transparency. Fundamentally, he posited that committed, empowered employees with the freedom to collaborate perform better. And since that works, the Habits became fuel for the Entrepreneur’s Organization’s expansion, and they underlie the careers of many business consultants.

The Art of Motivation

But the tactical answers keep moving. In the years since Habits original publication, society has changed more quickly than ever before. While the Habits still apply, just as surely as do the Needs, putting either to use requires new tools. “The Rockefeller Habits,” Harnish writes in his update, “when fully implemented (and automated through technology), facilitate the decentralization of organizations, providing…communication and feedback…”

Today’s digitized employees need decentralization, communications and feedback as much as they need air.  Besides becoming addicted to smartphones, they also endured extreme financial and social changes. Now they want to understand what’s happening around them at work, and, especially, why it is happening. They want to be informed, and they want to know that they’re making a solid contribution, which brings us to the award winning 2013 book by Stephen Lynch, Business Execution for RESULTS.

Sixty years after Maslow first explained motivation, the art of harnessing it has advanced to the point that it transcends the business itself. “The broadest and most powerful engagement happens,” Lynch writes, “when a company has a purpose that gives people an opportunity to work for things beyond the numbers. If you're clear about your purpose, people who share [it] will clamor to work for you.”

In our experience, the leaders in the Entrepreneur’s Organization thrive on purpose. They belong to the organization because they share it’s purpose. We provide EO Chapters with our management platform because we want to help them accomplish their purpose. Members usually start their businesses with even more purpose, often explaining to us that they want to run it with people clamoring to contribute to it.

The Secret to the Future

“Purpose is the engine of deep, powerful engagement,” Lynch explains, adding that simply having one is not enough to benefit from it. “To make the magic happen,” he writes, “you have to begin by defining [it] and then sharing it with [your] people.”

Today’s business leaders are way past the needs at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. It’s remarkable to see that, nearly seventy-five years on, they’ve advanced management past even “belonging” and “esteem.” Those aren’t enough anymore. Maslow studied the extraordinary top 1%, and expanded the realm of the possible. Today, when leaders envision their company’s future and the kind of culture they want to share with their team, they want no less than the work version of Self-Actualization.