Wealth Shift: The Decline of Ethics in America
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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – Revisited and Redefined

Yes, yes, I know what you are thinking. We’ve all heard about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need. So what? How is what I have to say anything different from what you already learned in school?

Well, the problem with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need is that it is being grossly mistaught, mis-understood and mis-applied, and therefore, by extension, it is grossly undervalued as a modern-day management tool. In point of fact, the managers in this country who understand Maslow and have correctly deduced the principles that Maslow was trying to teach, are not in the same Deep Shift that other, far more bureaucratic, companies are in right now. Clearly, we need to take a look at why.

Let’s look again at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need:


At the top of Maslow’s pyramid is self-actualization. When Maslow spoke about self-actualization, he made it very clear that self-actualization is the instinctual need that all humans have to make the most of their abilities and to strive to be the best they can be. (Sounds like ethics, no?) This final stage of human development, according to Maslow, cannot come until all of a person’s lower needs have been fully met. However, once all of a person’s lower needs have been met, mankind, by his very nature, will find himself compelled to rise up and seek his highest self. With nothing else to occupy his time, mankind should naturally gravitate toward pursuing activities that fall into the upper-tier categories of esteem and self-actualization. For this reason, Maslow rationalized, if the majority of the members of a particular society can achieve a measure of affluence, then that society will, unquestionably, also be motivated to achieve utopia.

But America’s been affluent for a long time. So either Maslow’s theory is wrong or there’s no such thing as utopia, right?

Well, America has achieved affluence alright, but, unfortunately, the utopian levels of Maslow’s hierarchy have remained elusive to all but the most artistic of us. If we look at the pursuits that people allocate their time, effort and energy to in our society today, it would far more closely resemble a Hershey’s kiss than an actual Maslow-style pyramid. Somewhere along the way, instead of achieving utopia, our society got stuck continuously cycling through the three lowest tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy in a constant quest for the latest and greatest in food, shelter, clothing and security. We mock Maslow and his hierarchy, but we’ve never experienced the upper two tiers (much less achieved them on any sort of consistent basis), so how can any of us pass judgment and say they don’t have any relevance to our modern world? Isn’t that a lot like saying chocolate sucks, when you’ve never tried chocolate before?

In my opinion, Maslow, who lived from 1908 to 1970, could never have foreseen the effects that alcohol and other “drugs of choice” were bound to have on man’s ambition to achieve self-actualization. Maslow had no way of knowing how easy it was going to be for us to plop down after work in front of the television and “veg-out”. He knew nothing of the anesthetizing “noise” effect that video games, iTunes, and movies on demand were going to have on our affluent society. Maslow didn’t count on man’s ability to conveniently travel anywhere in the world in a day, or his ability to have access to all the finest foods from the comfort of his local restaurant. In other words, Maslow had no way of anticipating that man would go off on a anesthetic tangent of such depth and magnitude that it would virtually stop him from feeling the pain associated with failing to achieve the top two tiers of his pyramid, namely esteem and self-actualization.

And so we spend our days like fish in a pond, swimming round and round. We don’t know what true self-actualization is, much less how to achieve it. Although anesthetized, we still feel the lack. We do feel the lack. Why else do you think we are so unsatisfied and unsatisfiable? Why is it, that having so much, we are still so desperate for that intangible “more”?

To get a better picture of exactly what we are missing out on when we settle for being anesthetized instead of striving to be self-actualized, we must first identify the characteristics of self-actualized people. People who are self-actualized:

1) Have a clear perception of the true facts and realities of the world (including themselves) and can detect with unusual clarity that which is fake or dishonest. They are not afraid of the unknown, and can accept the uncertainties associated with change.

2) Are tolerant of self, others and nature. They are willing to accept the truth about human nature with all its shortcomings, imperfections, and frailties. They have no façade, but instead are open, honest and genuine in their pursuit for their higher selves.

3) Are spontaneous in their ideas, thoughts, and actions, and are motivated by their own internal growth and development rather than by a fear of rejection.

4) Are creative in the most childlike sense. Rather than special-talent creativity, self-actualized people exhibit the kind of creativity inherent in everyone, but which has been stifled by the need to “fit in”. It is a process of looking at things in a fresh, naïve, and “can-do” oriented way.

5) Are interested in solving problems, including the problems of others. Problem solving is often a key focus in their lives, and they often have a mission – some problem outside themselves that requires their energies. In general, this mission is unselfish, and is involved with the philosophical and the ethical.

6) Feel close to other people and generally appreciate life, despite knowing that mankind is flawed. They have a sympathy, empathy, and compassion for others.

7) Have deeply connected interpersonal relationships. They are capable of erasing ego boundaries and experiencing more closeness of connection. They have a few deep connections rather than many acquaintances. In these relationships, they are both willing to hold the mirror up and have the mirror held up to themselves to avoid falling into the traps of the critical, the pretentious, and the self-serving.

8) Have a need for solitude and reflection – they understand the difference between loneliness and solitude and understand the benefit of self-awareness.

9) Have a system of morality that is fully internalized and independent of external authority. Self actualized people are highly ethical, although their notions of good and evil, right and wrong are not always conventional ones.

10) Have a democratic character structure. They seek their interpersonal connections across all boundaries of social class, education, political belief, race, or sex. They see everyone as a potential contributor in their quest for knowledge and don’t prejudge who can make a contribution and who can’t.

11) Are consciously rather than unconsciously motivated. They know what they are doing and why. Rather than letting the winds of fate blow them in whatever direction it sees fit, they make their own destiny.

Looking at this list and imagining the people we could be if we a) wanted to be, b) were helped to be, and c) were proactively taught to be, it makes me wonder -has Maslow failed us? Or have we have failed Maslow? We briefly study in Management 101 what appears at first blush to be a relatively simple concept. Scanning it once, we think we have fully grasped the Hierarchy and its implications for the workplace. We set up false systems of praise and reward to supplement the company’s more basic monetary rewards, and pride ourselves in properly applying Maslow’s management techniques.

The most recent and telling failure of this kind of psuedo self-actualization psychobabble is in the rewards used to motivate the Millennials. (In point of fact, Gen Y motivational reward paraphernalia is a $50 billion/year industry.) Little trophies and certificates and gifts – all crap, all meaningless crap – designed to coddle the Millennials along. Nobody seems to “get” that the real reason we feel we need to keep throwing reward after reward at the Millennials like smelt to sea otters, is because we have no idea how to mentor them   no idea at all.

If you look at the list of characteristics of self-actualized people, who comes first to mind? The Millennials, that’s who. They’ve been raised to crave self-actualization. They don’t know how to get it, but they’ve been raised to feel a burning hunger for it. And according to Maslow (who is right, by the way) deep down in their hearts the Millennials know all these little rewards are crap. I even heard one jokingly say on 60 Minutes, “Just write my mom a note and say I did good. Come to think of it, write Grandma, too.”

The Millennials aren’t just looking for a trophy for participating. They are searching for something much more important to them than that. They aren’t just looking for authority figures that will debase themselves by participating in one of the most recent types of Millennial rewards – boss abuse. They don’t want a mentor who is willing to shave his head bald when the team meets a goal. They aren’t looking for someone who is willing to make a fool of himself at the company picnic to prove they are “all in this together”.

They are searching for a mentor who can teach them how to become self-actualized.

If you want to make sure a Millennial sticks around, all you have to do is say the following, mean it and THEN FOLLOW THROUGH WITH IT:

“Look. I know you have high expectations of what you will achieve in your lifetime. Frankly, so do I. I also know you want more out of life than the drudgery your parents had. And I want you to know that I want that for you and me both. But first we are both going to have to get some more tools in our kits. I am willing to acknowledge that you know a lot of things that will benefit me to know, but I also need you to acknowledge that I know a lot of things that are going to benefit you to know, too.

I am not going to mollycoddle you, or pat you on the head every day just for showing up. I am not going to take it lying down if you Wealth Shift, and I don’t expect you to take it lying down if I Wealth Shift, either. But I will teach you. I will mentor you. I will teach you what I know and you will teach me what you know, and together we will solve the problems of this company. And when we solve a problem – a real problem – we will reward each other the way true friends do. We will share together in the rewards that the company will bestow upon us for our achievements. I will sometimes ask you to do tasks that will seem menial. I will sometimes do menial tasks myself. But I will never make you do ALL the shit work, alone and by yourself. Fair?”

Seem Pollyanna-ish to you? I agree. One of the hardest things to do is envision mentoring someone else to achieve something you’ve never even experienced yourself. It’s like believing you can fly, and we all know that humans can’t fly. Oh, that’s right airplanes. Of course, like the possibility of human flight, a manager would have to be willing to believe in the possibility of self-actualization and want to reach self-actualization himself in order to stop doling out false rewards and start substituting mentorship effort instead. To move along toward this goal, perhaps it would help to more fully understand just what a self-actualizing experience actually is:

A self-actualizing experience is an episode or spurt in which the powers of the person(s) come together in a particularly and intensely enjoyable way, and in which he is more integrated and less split, more open for experience, more idiosyncratic, more perfectly expressive or spontaneous, or fully functioning, more creative, more humorous, more ego-transcending, more independent of his lower needs, etc. He becomes in these episodes more truly himself, more perfectly actualizing his potentialities, closer to the core of his being, more fully human. Not only are these his happiest and most thrilling moments, but they are also his moments of greatest maturity, individuation and fulfillment – in a word, his healthiest moments.

Wow. Forget the Millennials, we all want that! But, you might ask, isn’t that kind of experience only available to artistic people like Michelangelo while he was painting the Sistine Chapel? Isn’t it way beyond the reach of someone like me? And isn’t it even further beyond the reach of the idiots who work for me? In other words, does it really have an application in the workplace?

Yes. Absolutely. It is not beyond anyone to achieve self-actualization. Self-actualization knows no military rank or social class. It doesn’t obey rules. Anyone, and I mean anyone, can participate in this kind of -for lack of a better word – “mystical” experience. People who have experienced it call it the “oceanic” feeling – when the world expands beyond its boundaries and all things become possible. During a peak experience such as this, the people involved experience feelings of ecstasy, awe, and wonderment, as though limitless horizons have just been opened to them. They are filled with a sense that something important -something beyond the boundaries of existence as we know it - has just happened and that they were privileged to be a part of it.

What an incredible thought, huh? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a part of something like that? I’m telling you, you don’t have to be the Dali Lama to have self-actualizing experiences. And when it happens in the workplace, it is unbelievably amazing. I’ll give you an example from my own life to prove it.

Just before my husband was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and I was forced to rearrange my personal and professional priorities for a while, I had the opportunity to participate in an amazing self-actualizing experience. I was working as a consultant for one of the largest restaurants in the country on the banks of Lake Travis in the Texas hill country. This restaurant was HUGE. Not only did the restaurant have a main dining room and over twenty decks of seating space, it also had a banquet area and a dining + entertainment venue. In its entirety, it was a three-ring-circus every night.

The restaurant was being run by a very capable GM who had trained within the Brinker organization. Still, the restaurant had some flaws that I believed were preventing it from reaching its fullest potential. For one thing, the entertainment deck was too small. For another, we didn’t serve any creative salads that would take the pressure off the hot side of the kitchen when things were operating at peak. For another, things had been done in such a repetitive way that everyone involved, from the GM to the lowest prep person in the kitchen, was bored straight out of their gourds.

The quality of the food was atrocious. Wealth Shifting was rampant. People would punch in and then leave to go for a swim. “Recreational stimulants” were everywhere. Almost everyone was having sex with someone else, or at least thinking about it. In short, it was a typical restaurant.

I knew we needed to revive the excitement if we were going to make the restaurant zing. So we set about changing the menu, building a bigger entertainment deck and having one-on-ones and group meetings to pump people up. We taught everyone (not just the catered event servers) the etiquette rules associated with proper table service. We bought new dishes and other supplies and built an outdoor buffet.

We did all this….and….um…. nothing much inspirational happened.


One night it dawned on me. Sitting there trying to figure out why, with all the exciting things that were going on at the restaurant, people still seemed so Wealth Shiftless, I finally figured it out. We didn’t have a mission -a global goal! People understood their own individual needs, wants, and desires. They understood the structure of their team and how they fit within the team. But we had never set a universal goal – one that people could understand and get behind. Nor had we given them concrete examples of what they could all do to collectively attain it. It wasn’t that they weren’t excited – it wasn’t that at all! It was that they had absolutely no clue how to become a part of management’s grand dream. Suddenly, I understood my mission. It was up to me to both set a goal and also teach everyone in the restaurant how to translate it into action.

But what should the goal be?

I remembered a particular phenomenon I had seen quite frequently in my career. It is the phenomenon of the four-minute mile. Up until 1954, it was thought impossible for a human being to run a mile in under four minutes. And why not? Nobody had ever done it before. But then along came British runner Roger Bannister. On May 6, 1954, in front of about 3,000 spectators, Bannister ran a mile in 3:59.4. Just forty-six days later, John Landy of Australia, clocked in at 3:57.9. Since then, the four-minute mile has been broken time and again and the current record is 3:43.13 (held by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, 1999).

At our restaurant, the four-minute mile equivalent was one-million dollars of monthly revenue. That’s right, one-million dollars. In one restaurant. In one month. Not only had we never had a one-million dollar month in over 20 years of existence, we had never even come close. Our previous record had been in the mid-eights. The managers talked about it constantly -in manager meetings, over late-night drinks to unwind. They referred to it with hushed reverence as “The Holy Grail” (cue celestial music, please).

But in my mind it stood to reason that with the addition of the new entertainment venue, the outdoor buffet, the banquet facilities, and the new, more expedite-friendly menu, if we all pulled together, we could do it. We would do it. All we had to do was publish the goal, post it everywhere – in the kitchen, the break room, the accounting office - and then keep track on a daily basis of how we were progressing against our previous “best”.

Needless to say, I could barely sleep that night. I was so excited to present my plan to the restaurant owner and the GM that I could barely stay in my skin. The “rightness” of my plan permeated every fiber of my being. I didn’t know how I knew it was the missing link, but I did.

But it wouldn’t be business if there hadn’t been someone -someone with power -who had something “cautionary” to say about my plan. Of course, the GM did. Having been in the restaurant far longer than I had, having chased the “Holy Grail” for his entire career rather than the relatively short time that this “outsider”, this upstart “nonrestaurant” person had, he of course had something to say.

He was “concerned”. What if we published the goal and the weather worked against us? What if, through no fault of our own, the daily goals could not be met? What if instead of motivating the employees, the plan actually backfired instead? No, it would be far better to do nothing, nothing at all. Better to stick to the familiar, the status quo, than risk possibly demoralizing everyone.

So I did what I had to do. I went behind the GM’s back and talked the owner into doing it my way. In effect, I shoved my plan down the restaurant’s throat. I put everything on the line. My credibility, my career with my client, everything. Right on the line. For me it was do or die.

I made sure I got around. I enlisted the efforts of people I had already been mentoring for a while. The HR director who knew everybody. The kitchen people I had breathed new life into by rolling up my sleeves and getting in the kitchen and cooking for. The controller, who I had been responsible for hiring and who agreed to make posting the daily tally the first priority of every day. We talked it up like you would not believe. We prepared people for greatness. We mentored them to do whatever it took.

“Here, let me show you how to fold that napkin.” “Here, let me taste that chilled soup and tell you what it needs….Man, that soup is great – it doesn’t need a thing! Good job!” “Here, let’s have small group mentorship meetings and brainstorm about ways to sell even more.”

Ideas flowed freely and crossed all lines of authority with absolute impunity. Whoever had an idea owned its execution. But that didn’t stop anybody. “Cold beer iced down in metal troughs outside in the courtyard? Great idea! Implement it! You’re in charge of that. Go to the feed store, buy the troughs, find a way to get enough ice, hand pick the personality people you want out there selling. It’s your baby, run with it.”

Every day we posted results. And every day the results were not just good. They were GREAT. As the month progressed, even the most jaded, I’ll-just-wait-and-seehow-this-turns-out, stick-in-the-muds were sneaking peaks at the numbers. Kids – millennials! – were pushing product like you wouldn’t believe.

Instead of passively saying things like, “Are you doin’ ok?” they were saying things like, “Isn’t that chilled avocado soup fantastic? Next time I see you, I’m going to see that you get some BBQ wings on me, cuz they’re my absolute favorite thing on the menu!” By the end of the month, our Millennials were not only picking up trash – they were looking for ways to make the whole self-actualizing experience even better.

They weren’t sneaking into the bathroom for a smoke or counting their tips in the parking lot. There wasn’t a Wealth Shiftless one in the bunch. They were getting up on stage and singing, playing hoola hoops with the kiddies, selling shots from bandoleros you name it. It was a month-long festival of productivity and creativity. It was a monthlong festival of accountability, too. The stick-in-the-muds just couldn’t hold out against the onslaught of badgering and heckling from the people who had already bought-in to the plan. Nobody let anybody else slide. “But I don’t like to dance!” someone would whine. “Fine, then take those iced buckets of beer and go table-to-table selling!” one of their peers would respond. Those kids were selling machines.

I didn’t need to search for people to compliment. And neither did anyone else. Complements were flowing all over the place. If someone was on a break, nobody hassled them. We all knew we needed breaks and that nobody in their right mind was going to ruin it for everyone else by being Wealth Shiftless.

Towards the end of the month we passed a million dollars in revenue. For a moment I let my doubts creep in and I sadly wondered, “Does this mean it’s all over?” But I shouldn’t have worried. As they looked at the numbers that morning, the employees barely even blinked. Why? Because we had been posting numbers every day and everyone already knew we were going to do a million, easy. The million dollars was no longer the goal. The process had become so exciting, so fulfilling, that it had taken on a life of its own. We had transcended the numbers and were now on to a higher goal – that of being the best damned restaurant in the Lone Star State.

Was this self-actualizing episode perfect? No. Flawless? No. Do I wish I had been able to start with buy-in from the get-go? Yes. Do I wish I hadn’t had to play favorites to get the ball rolling? Double yes. Do I wish I had listened even more than I did? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

But that is the beauty of a self-actualizing experience. It isn’t about creating perfection. It’s about creating energy. And then letting the energy overwhelm you to the point where it spills out all over you, your employees, your customers and everyone else in the food chain, including the owners/investors.

We need to give investors like Warren Buffet, who is, as I write this, touring Europe in his search for new companies to buy, a good reason not to give up on us and take their money elsewhere. We need to give employees a good reason to show up every day. A good reason. A self-actualizing reason. People are tired of seeing the same old, same old. People are also tired of changes that make no sense and which show no true sense of inspired direction. We show up knowing already that today will be the same as yesterday, and tomorrow will be the same as today. God. It’s no wonder we are all so Wealth Shiftless.

It is not too late for us to change. And if we do change, we can turn our country around. We have a $13.5 trillion annual GDP, for heaven’s sake. We are the most creative people in the world. If we don’t get caught in a state of mass paralysis resulting from the debt we have incurred by practicing our horrible Wealth Shifting ways and from buying things we don’t really want or need, then we can, Can, CAN, make America the most amazing place. Not of the world, but of our dreams.

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