Paradox of Needs in the Human Resource Management

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Executive summary (abstract)

Organizations embrace bureaucracy as a perfect way of dealing with a large number of tasks. They also use the bureaucracy to reduce performance to a set of quantifiable tasks. Eventually, this leads to performance targeting. However, in people’s true nature, which is organic, a quantitative approach creates a situation where there is little concern for the quality of work. As mentioned earlier, humans adapt to their environment and focus on completing tasks, leaving out any unnecessary things such as quality. For a while, everything will happen well as the bureaucracy of organizations improves the manageability of people. However, after the organization grows and its operating environment becomes challenging, the need for humanness in human resources arises again. This essay explores the paradox of needs in the human resource contexts, examining its existence and its potential solutions. The essay highlights the plight of line managers caught between the machine approach of organization and the organic approach of humans in their work practices. It also explores possible solutions and suggests a way forward for dealing with the present challenge of managing people by calling for a balance on organizational demand for bureaucracy and the ability to offer informal working environments for people.

Introduction and background

Managing people is a hard practice that human resource managers undertake. The difficulty arises from the fact that one has to provide an environment that people like to work in. At the same time, the people working in the provided space have to work efficiently and effectively. It appears easy on the book; however, in practical terms, getting a balance between the working environment and the working productivity of people is difficult. People make up their working environment, which is dynamic. They respond to internal and external factors continuously. If this is the case, and organizations are simply a collection of human being working towards a uniform objective, there can be no single solution to the people management problem. The rest of this essay is going to explore the options available in dealing with the paradox of needs.

The history of human resource management can attest to the complexity of managing people. There have been downsizing of personnel specialists. Managers have to lead and manage at the same time. Organizations continue to become leaner and managers continue to receive training that should make them achieve more results with fewer resources (Clegg, Harris, & Höpfl, 2011). The evolution is unbelievable because it presents both rational and irrational thinking that seems to be informing people management. One asks the following question: If people were very important in organizations, including managers, why would organizations strive to reduce their numbers? Another paradoxical observation is that people might value freedom very much, yet they end up working in organizations that severely limit the freedom. The above observations bring the discussion to the paradox of needs, which is going to be the subject of this essay. Based on the understanding of how organizations work, humans and organizations need each other. However, people value happiness, while organizations work based on rationality. These two features will always conflict, as human beings are premised on an organic model, yet most organizations run on a machine model that has hierarchies, static predictability, and a high demand for self-sacrifice and efficiency. Unlike machines, humans are dynamic, adaptable to their environments, and problem solvers.

Human and Organizational Conflict of Needs

Humans have to risk their psychological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization needs for them to grow and satisfy additional needs. There is no growth without risking, and atrophy ensues. There have been predictions made in the past about the present world. There are claims of the present business world being bureaucratic in an extreme sense, such that humans have to be machinelike to survive. In this regard, humans have to lose spirit, sensuality, and heart. It is hailed as the peak of civilization. This was Weber’s vision of today’s reality (Ritzer, 2011).

The introduction of this essay hinted at how humans find themselves having to work with organizations that limit their freedom. According to Weber’s explanation of formal rationality, the observation arises because people are searching for an optimal means to a given end. In doing so, they operate within rules, regulations, and larger social structures. In the past, people could use their own devices to discover a given end, and they only had to rely on vague guidance from belief systems like general religions. With formal rationality, individuals lose much of the freedom they have to reach the ends.

Organizations require people to become innovative and creative for them to strive and achieve their goals (Ritzer, 2011). However, too much bureaucratic tradition stifles creativity and problem-solving skills of employees. At the same time, employees in a mature organization have developed a comfort zone, where their needs are only necessary to the extent that they are achievable with the current efforts (Berman, Bowman, West, & Wart, 2012).

An apparent thing about the future is that paradoxes will increase. The paradox of needs will be more complex than its current constitution. People will continue seeking ways to adapt to organizational rules and still achieve their needs. On their part, organizations are likely to strive to embrace organic structures, yet they will only thrive when they are mechanical. There will be increased business tools for managing human resources and their outcomes and demand will vary according to the environments and organizational needs. They may also depend on people leadership within organizations. There is no one solution to solving the paradox of needs. This realization has not and will likely not stop scholars and practitioners from seeking ways to ensure that there is a balance of organizational and people demands in the future workplace.

Organizational Approaches to Standardization to Boost Performance

Continuous research is revealing insights on how managers can manage human resources, but it does not provide practical answers for current practitioners to use (Lui, Lau, & Ngo, 2004). A universal solution to the paradox is not yet available. The following are some of the practical changes in human resource management that seek to merge the organizational need for bureaucracy and people’s need for freedom. Businesses are using online-based applications. There is an increase in the number of laws and regulations for online jobs and job recruitment processes. There are online job postings and virtual recruitment centers. These centers have interactive voice response systems, computerized interviews, and electronic background checks. The adoption of machine strategies for recruitment jobs allows organizations to limit the need for staff and achieve other objectives, such as saving costs and getting faster responses. However, that is creating another problem that organizations will have to deal with later. Human beings, adaptive as they are, are shifting their focus on organizational fitness. They take courses and establish online profiles that present them as ideal candidates (Berman et al., 2012).

Without the human element in recruitment, organizations once again succumb to the perils of bureaucracy. They are getting workers who are keen to meet targets and caring less about any other attribute of job performance, such as creativity and problem solving or personal leadership. The efficient system of human resource management soon becomes a complex one that introduces new inefficiency. Soon, organizations have to seek another method of verifying online profiles of candidates. They have to deal with robotic recruitment agencies that provide candidates who fit job descriptions, but provide little value to organizations when they are hired. Meanwhile, employees fed up with dehumanized working environments work to undercut or sabotage operations. The system that began as a highly rational one eventually becomes highly irrational.

In the Maslow hierarchy of needs, safety is one of the basic needs. It includes economic security, which is achieved to allow a person to go on and fulfill life/belonging needs, such as building friendships. However, to achieve economic security, a person has to provide value to other people. At the same time, the need to minimize the risk of losing one’s safety net is also the reason why people will not take more risks that will allow them to provide more value and gain more resources to sustain their safety. A safety adaptation of humans appears to be inhumane. Consequently, humans do not have to worry about additional needs in the Maslow hierarchy. It explains how people focus too much on economic prosperity and commodity than their need for love, belonging, and esteem.

High Level of Imitative Orientation is leading to Increased Homogeneity of Human Resource Management Globally

Increased globalization is leading to a convergence of human resource best practices. On the other hand, theories on firm competitiveness, such as the resource-based view theory call for a firm’s competencies to be unique, hard to imitate, rare, and manageable (Hill, Jones, & Schilling, 2014). An organic structure and philosophy in an organization would make it strong enough to take on the competitors. That would be the rational choice to make regarding human resource management. However, organizations also adopt approaches so that they have an equal chance for a competitive advantage as their rivals. As a result, the acclaimed human resource practices are being touted as the best fit for every organization globally.

When firms combine their practices, they stop becoming competitive in their human resource practices. They lose their distinctiveness from other companies. One may argue that embracing the best practices allows them to achieve greater success in their operations, thereby achieving their objectives faster and efficiently. At the same time, other firms using the same strategy will be doing the same. If there is room for growth and achievement of all objectives of all firms, then such a scenario is good. However, the finite nature of many resources ensures that competition becomes stiffer. A competing edge rises from a narrow scope of abilities yet to be standardized. Hitherto, firms will constantly look to standardize their uniqueness to achieve higher bureaucratic control. Doing so brings them back to the earlier positions, where they have nothing to safeguard their operations against the completion. An increase in rational thinking for organizations goes on to cause more irrationality in the scope of managing people.

An example in the real world is available from Japan. Multinational companies from Japan are shifting away from being providers of lifelong employment (Lui et al., 2004). They are restructuring their operations to sustain low growth and globalization. In addition, their human resource practices are changing to reflect globalized systems. With managers being schooled in globally recognized institutions, the techniques of managing people being adopted across the world are getting similar (Lui et al., 2004). While companies have different operations, the same crop of managers brings similar practices and eventually all firms develop the same global thinking. It does not mean that the universal practices are superior and effective for all organizations. However, since management personnel have the same training and way of thinking, they fear to risk using other methods unknown to them. Firms are seeking to gain legitimacy in a global operating environment, which is the main reason for them to mimic other firms’ human resource practices (Clegg et al., 2011).

Another motivation for adopting similar institution practices is the desire to avoid high levels of uncertainty. Firms want humans to operate like machines and abandon their hierarchy of needs so that they remain predictable and manageable. This allows the organization to respond to intense competition in a global market. Doing so increases the complexity that a given firm faces internally. A firm has to constantly identify the unique features of its employees and remove them to remain with a highly standardized workforce. As it introduces new management practices, it also creates room for new ways of individuals to express themselves.

Research by Lui et al. (2004) confirms that the proposal of using human resource best practices to enhance an organization’s performance is paradoxical. The discussion above shows that firms are adopting best practices in human resource management because they are looking for legitimacy and hoping to match the competitive capabilities of their rivals. Another reason for the adoption of these practices would be to obtain competitive advantages that other firms in their regions and markets are yet to embrace. This approach hints at an eventual adoption of the same practices for managing human resources in an entire market. As firms take up the best practices, they face another reality where they will only gain marginal increases in their returns and performance. At the same time, any positive returns will be in the short-term. Overall, the adoption will lead to no major improvements in performance. A manager that takes up human resource best practices to improve performance is making the wrong choice. As the resource-based view theory confirms, for firms to succeed with their human resources and have an edge over their rivals, they need to pursue unique strategies for their human capital development (Lui et al., 2004).

The expectation of line managers

While changes occur at an organizational level and organizational leaders embrace new approaches, line managers face the biggest burden of ensuring that employees adhere to new rules, adopt new working ways, and deliver performance outcomes as measured by new performance parameters. Also, line managers have to work with the employees recruited into the organization, irrespective of their fit to particular duties. In large organizations, line managers can only recommend shifts or sacking of employees but have no power to influence the constitution of the workforce. Unfortunately, they face the biggest threat of losing their job when employees under them fail to perform.

Over the last decade, the role of human resource departments kept on changing to reflect some of the changes discussed in the previous sections of this paper. Meanwhile, line managers have been facing the challenge of ensuring that the adopted strategies are supporting the values and objectives of their organizations. Firms benefit from an increase in the focus of their core business when human resource departments move away from daily people-related tasks like recruitment and performance measurements, as well as coaching because they are third-party services and organizations providing the same services. After a while, they realize that the burden of people-related tasks has fallen to the line managers. However, failing to update the role of line managers to reflect the new roles places the firm in a disadvantaged position. Reduced bureaucracy at the human resources department remains as a smokescreen to performance. Increased job demands for line managers under stagnant work descriptions and recommendations increase the loss of quality of human capital. At the same time, the outsourcing firm loses control over the daily people-related tasks and must come up with additional bureaucratic structures, such as rules, policies, and procedures to ensure that employees sourced and trained by third-party service providers are able to do their jobs to the expectations of the employing organization.

Line managers resent the additional burden of training and administering employees who come to the organization with new techniques and routines. Although the organization may benefit from having employees who are problem solvers and creative, it will still stifle their progress as it forces them to work within set up structures. Such employees have to continue being creative, yet they report to line managers whose only yardstick is the realization of performance goals, such as increased productivity and reduced costs. It is unlikely that line managers will be motivated to pursue the unique management needs of people to ensure that they deliver more than what their standardized measurements can capture. On the other hand, the human resource department will keep complaining to the company’s leadership that the line managers are resisting change. The challenge is for human resource departments to consider the plight of line managers, the effects of bureaucracy, and the increased adoption of best practices for managing people that are dehumanizing organizations.

Labor Compensation Strategies

Other than the theoretical underpinnings of managing human resources, the wage and output measurements offer practical ways of determining the right strategy for a firm to follow. They also reveal the paradox of human needs. One of the choices that organizations have is to follow a wage-lead approach, where people who are working smarter and are highly qualified receive higher wages to motivate them. However, the organization can only sustain the strategy to the extent of its resources. It has to find ways of measuring performance constantly to justify pay and increase the standardization of work practices (Clegg et al., 2011).

The second option is to go for a wage competitive policy. Here, compensation ceases to be a factor in human resource management. Employees are attracted and retained by allures that match their needs. However, organizations end up without ways of motivating additional increases in performance by individual employees. The last option is the wage follower plans, where the organization works hard to gain the most in the short-term from the fewest possible poorly paid employees. When the organization is operating in a professional service environment, such a strategy is termed as ‘penny-wise and pound-foolish’ (Berman et al., 2012). Otherwise, it will work well in highly standardized, low skill jobs like retail chains and fast food chains.

Way Forward

It is impossible to prescribe a particular human resource management strategy for any organization that would work with all other organizations in similar circumstances. However, the existence of knowledge about the paradox of needs allows scholars and practitioners to pursue potential solutions that seek a balance. The best approach would be to have a system that constantly updates the motivations and operations of an organization to reflect changes in its internal and external operating environments. The system should constantly balance organizational and human needs. This calls for organizational leadership to accept compromises on the standardization efforts to support expressions of creativity and problem-solving abilities of staff at all levels. Using a hybrid compensation policy that does not dictate machine or organic tendencies to either the organization or its members could also be a good approach to balancing needs.


More organizations will continue to succumb to the perils of bureaucracy and standardization. Increased outsourcing of management services and depending on best practices will only lead to additional challenges for humanizing organizations that are functioning in robotic ways. Gaining competitive advantages will only be possible when organizations are as humanely as possible. At the same time, many managers will continually embrace standardization techniques for increasing the humanness of their organizations. The solution to the paradox of human needs remains unknown, and the present literature only points to possibilities. Following the recommended steps highlighted in this essay would be one way to correct the problem and understand it better. Blindly following the next new strategy for human resource management to increase employee performance is a futile attempt.


Berman, E. M., Bowman, J. S., West, J. P., & Wart, M. R. (2012). Human resource management in public service: Paradoxes, processes and problems (4th ed.). New York: SAGE Publications.

Clegg, S. R., Harris, M., & Höpfl, H. (Eds.). (2011). Managing modernity, beyond bereaucracy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hill, C., Jones, G., & Schilling, M. (2014). Strategic management theory: An integrated approach (11th ed.). Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

Lui, S. S., Lau, C.-M., & Ngo, H.-Y. (2004). Global convergence, human resources best pactices, and firm performance: A paradox. MIR: Management International Review,, 44(2), 67-86.

Ritzer, G. (2011). The McDonaldization of society 6. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

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