Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is one of the world’s best-known management and psychology models. And the internet does not need another detailed article about it.
But, the hierarchy of needs is a Big Idea. In fact, it’s a Big Idea structured around another Big Idea, with a third Big Idea built in, all of which sit on top of an important point.
The truth is that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs well and truly earns its fame among management models. This is despite a welter of critiques and failings, and a series of later and more rigorously researched theories and models.
So, this article is going to take a rather different view of the hierarchy of needs. But one that will be instructive, nonetheless. Here, I want to break apart the Big Ideas buried in Maslow’smost enduring work.
Abraham Maslow never set out to be a management thinker: his attention was on people in the round. It was only his desire to test out his ideas – and those of colleague Douglas McGregor – that led him to be one of the best known names among managers. His model of motivation is almost certainly the most widely known in English speaking organisations. Does it deserve to be?
Abraham Maslow was born in 1908 to Jewish emigré parents, who had come to New York to escape Tsarist pogroms in Russia. There, Maslow grew up amidst antisemitism.
He took his undergraduate degree at City University of New York and then gained his MA and PhD in psychology at the University of Wisconsin in 1934. His thesis considered dominance and sexuality in Monkeys, which later led noted sexologist Alfred Kinsey to seek out his assistance in the 1940s. Maslow, however, rejected Kinsey, challenging the rigour of his research and later publishing evidence of bias in Kinsey’s sample selection (of young women for his study).
Maslow spend the late 1930s and the 1940s teaching and researching at Brooklyn College, where he published his most notable work on The Hierarchy of Needs in 1943 (A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review, 50, pp370-396). This was later fully documented in his most important book, Motivation and Personality.
In 1951, he moved to Brandeis University, where he stayed until 1969, a year before his death in 1970
A Humanist First
The core of Maslow’s work as a psychologist was his move away from studying the psychology of people with problems, towards people who are successful. He used the term ‘positive psychology’and was almost certainly the first to do so. It is now widely used, since its establishment as a (now very vibrant) field of research by Martin Seligman.
However, the movement he was instrumental in had the name of humanistic psychology and it is one that last week’s Management Thinker, Mary Parker Follett would have embraced.
The Hierarchy of Needs
His major contribution was a model that was designed to explain human behaviour and has subsequently come to be used as a theory of workplace motivation. He built a needs theory of human behaviour by first grouping human needs into classes, and then arranging these classes into a hierarchy. He argued that the prospect of satisfying an unmet need leads to motivation to act or choose.
Often shown as a pyramid, with basal (or ‘deficiency’) needs at the bottom and higher (or ‘growth’) needs at the top, the sequence means that our first instinct is to focus on the lowest level of unmet need.
include warmth, food, sex, sleep and shelter – anything necessary to survival.
Safety and Security Needs
can now be thought of as job, wage or other economic security.
Love and Belonging Needs
are for social acceptance and the development of trusting relationships.
are firstly for power, status and prestige and then, for a self-belief that our place is merited.
was what Maslow was interested in: maximising our potential, living life to the full and contributing to our society.
In more modern needs theories of motivation, like Self Determination Theory of Ryan and Deci (popularised by Daniel Pink), belonging, esteem and self actualisation are still seen as powerful workplace motivators in the forms of relatedness (love and belonging), competence (esteem), and autonomy (actualisation).
There are two critiques that are commonly levelled at the Hierarchy of Needs – one valid, one not.
It is often argued that the hierarchy presents a rigid sequence and that we continually want more, so do not fully escape the lowest levels, whilst some artist, say, will self-actualise away in lonely poverty in a cold garrett ignoring the basement motivators. In fact, Maslow himself said that the hierarchy is neither universal, nor a rigid sequence. The price his legacy pays for fame, is that most people learn the model from a few paragraphs in a text book or fifteen minutes in a management training session – and not from Maslow’s own writing. (Up goes my hand too!)
The more valid critique is the shallow research base for the model, and the reliance Maslow placed on anecdote, interview and subjective interpretation. However, we must understand his motivation: which was to create a springboard for studying what really interested him – Self Actualisation.
In fact, he did spend time in industry, studying motivation, but it was Douglas McGregor’s Theory Y that he was testing – and he found it wanting. Much as he supported it, he found it too simplistic in the real world, where people need a dose of Theory X predictability to feel fully secure.
Above and Below the Pyramid
Interesting to me is Maslow’s argument that we cannot satisfy our needs unless we have sufficient freedoms. As a humanist, he argued strongly for basic human freedoms such as expression and speech, the ability to defend ourselves, and for a society that prioritises justice.
Above the pyramid, he argued we would find needs higher than self-actualisation in the way he described it. These may be some form of aesthetic, spiritual or transcendent needs. This is an idea that Clare Graves developed into Spiral Dynamics, although the merits of that model need careful assessment.
For may years, knowing he came from Russia, I pronounced his name Mazlov. My research for this article shows that I was wrong. The name is common among Polish and Western Ukrainian Jewish families, where the -ow ending is pronounced with the soft w sound. A research student of his from the early 1940s records on a Wikipedia discussion page that Maslow pronounced his own name as Mah-zlow.
Frederick Herzberg was a clinical psychologist who saw a gap in the research on workplace psychology and filled it with his convictions about what gives people a sense of wellbeing. This places him amongst other great humanistic psychologists, from Maslow to McGregor. His work was widely influential and his keystone Harvard Business Review article, ‘One More Time: How do you motivate employees?’ remains one of the most widely read of that publication’s reprints.
Frederick Herzberg was born in Massachusetts in 1923 and grew up in New York, where he attended the City College of New York, initially studying history. Incidentally, Maslow also attended City College. Although he loved history, he found the way it was taught too impersonal and overly-focused on events, so he transferred to psychology. But before he completed his course, he enlisted in the US Army, where he served with distinction as an infantry sergeant. He was among the liberators of the Dachau concentration camp which must have affected him profoundly, not least because he was a Jew whose family had come to the US as emigrants from Lithuania.
After the war, he returned to New York to complete his degree and went on to earn a masters degree and a PhD at the University of Pittsburg. In the mid-1950s, Herzberg worked at the US Public Health Service where he started to become interested in workplace psychology. After surveying all of the existing literature and finding it wanting, he conducted his own research, interviewing over 200 engineers. This work led, in 1959, to his first book, with Bernard Mausner and Barbara B. Snyderman, Motivation to Work. He followed this with his 1966 book, Work and the Nature of Man, in which he extends the same ideas in a more philosophical direction, adopting the metaphor of the characters Adam and Abraham from the Bible.
Herzberg’s earlier academic work was done at Case Western Reserve University, from where he moved to the University of Utah in 1972. He remained there up to his retirement. He died in January 2000.
Our earlier post, What Motivates your Team Members?, summarises Herzberg’s Hygeine and Motivation theory. He discovered that the things that leave us dissatisfied at work are different from those which satisfy us. Fixing the dissatisfiers (or ‘hygiene factors’) will only stop us being grumpy. Other things motivate us positively and Herzberg argued that employers should stop trying to use the granting and withholding of hygiene factors (which he colourfully described in his HBR article as giving employees a Kick in the Ass – KITA) and start working on the positive, aspirational motivators that enrich our lives. He was an early advocate of engaging employees and bringing the best out of them.
Indeed, Herzberg catalogued what he saw as essential in bringing out creativity and innovation from your team:
an unconventional viewpoint
effectiveness in ambiguity
separating motivation from hygiene factors
suppressing over-concern for advancement
Ultimately, Herzberg had an individualistic view of workplace success, ascribing more significance to personal talents and attitudes than to team efforts. He drew a balance between the attitudes and talents that eschewed simplistic egalitarianism, in favour of offering primacy to individuals with more relevant knowledge and expertise. But he also wanted to create a balance between a focus on data and fact on the one hand, with passion and experience on the other.
He taught us, as much or more than anyone else, that the simple approach of carrot and stick brings little more than ‘okay’ performance out of people. It is virtuous behaviours that enrich a workplace, which create great results.