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.
Teresa Amabile was born in 1950 and went Canisius College in western New York State, to study Chemistry. After graduating in 1972, she shifted direction and enrolled at Stanford University to take an MA in psychology, and stayed on to defend her PhD thesis in 1977.
She returned to the East coast to take up an academic post as Assistant Professor of Psychology at Brandeis, where she stayed until 1994, having become a full professor in 1990. There, she became an authority on creativity.
Her 1983 book, The Social Psychology of Creativity, republished in 1996 as Creativity in Context, is considered a classic research text for serious students. It reviews a wide and complex topic. Some of her own findings are most easily accessible in a 1998 Harvard Business Review article, called How to Kill Creativity, which is well-worth reading.
In 1995, she moved to Harvard to become the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration, a chair she continues to hold emerita. There, Amabile opened up a second, related front in her research, looking at motivation, mood, and our inner life, at work.
Teresa Amabile sees creativity arising out of three components:
Expertise, or knowledge in all its forms
Motivation to solve a problem. Self-motivation (or ‘intrinsic‘ motivation) is far more important than external (‘extrinsic‘) motivation, which can even stifle creativity.
Creative-thinking skills. Amabile asserts there is a capability here and she describes it in terms of flexibility, imagination and perseverance.
Managers can influence the development and deployment of these three components, and in her HBR article, Amabile lists six ways.
Managers need to provide tasks that challenge and stretch their employees, rather than allowing them to remain in their comfort zone. Notice how this relates to Csikszentmihalyi’s conditions for Flow.
People thrive best when they are able to work independently on their assignments. This reflects one of the three components of Self Determination Theory: Autonomy.
We know constraints help creativity and time pressure boosts it too. But these are likely to do so by also increasing intrinsic motivation. Amabile finds that, without sufficient time and material resources, creativity is held back.
Managers can create the local conditions for creativity by encouraging enthusiasm, mutual support and, vitally, a respect among team members for each others’ diverse abilities and contributions.
In a finding that is mirrored by Amabile’s more recent work on inner work-life and motivation, she concludes that managers who encourage and praise team members get more creativity out of them. (Shock horror!)
She argues that this goes further. A culture of creativity needs full-on organisational support behind that of the team’s immediate managers. People need to feel their creativity is valued and will open up opportunities.
The Progress Principle
Amabile’s most recent work into our ‘inner worklife‘ has caught the attention of the business press. Her findings show a complete conflict between what people think motivates them at work, and what actually leaves them feeling satisfied at the end of the day.
In questionnaires, Amabile found a very low self-assessment of the importance of making progress in overall mood and job satisfaction. But when she carefully analysed thousands of personal journal entries, she discovered that a sense of having made progress during the day offered the single greatest positive correlation to feeling good at the end of the day. And setbacks in work likewise had an adverse effect on end-of-the-day mood.
I can’t help thinking that David McClelland would hardly have been surprised that this is true of the people he described as having a high ‘Need for Achievement’. But Amabile showed that this applies to almost everyone. And this makes progress a very powerful and equally simple lever of motivation.
And… it is one that managers can easily manipulate. As a project manager, I have always advocated the use of more, rather than fewer, milestones on my projects. Each milestone is a point of recognition of progress. As a manager, you can set more progress indicators for your teams, and expect them to feel better about their work than if they had long periods between conspicuous successes.
There is far more to Amabile’s research than this. But she is an eloquent and clear speaker, so take a look at her describing the Progress Principle, in a 2011 TEDx talk, in Atlanta…
Teresa Amabile at TEDx
Here is Amabile speaking about the progress principle at TEDx, in 2011.
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.
One of the best known, most widely used, and least researched models that managers are introduced to is ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’.
Maslow argued that our motivations and values change as our needs change. Once a need is fulfilled, we turn our focus onto the next one, in a hierarchy from physiological needs for survival and shelter, up to higher needs that, arguably, drive those of us who have everything we ‘need’.
Clare Graves was a student and near contemporary of Maslow, who wanted to produce a better model. In doing so, he focused on different views of self actualisation and categorised a whole hierarchy of value systems.
His model, now formalised as ‘Spiral Dynamics’ sets out a series of value sets that mark out increasingly mature world views. It takes Maslow’s model to a higher level of complexity.
These world views can be interpreted as personal value sets, or as group cultures. They represent the different ways different people think about issues. As we as individuals, organisations and societies progress up the spiral, we are coming to grips with more complex and sophisticated ways of seeing the world.
The Levels of Spiral Dynamics
In simple terms, the levels of the spiral are:
Beige: Need for personal survival – focus on the present
Purple: Need for group and family security
Red: Need for personal power and control
Blue: Need for stability, order and conformity
Orange: Need for autonomy and success – a capitalist paradigm
Green: Need for harmony, community and social cohesion
Yellow: Need for independence and personal responsibility
Turquoise: Need for global community and global survival
The usual thing
Whilst Graves originated the thinking behind the model, it was formalised and given the name ‘Spiral Dynamics’ in the 1996 book ‘Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change ’ by Don Beck and Chris Cowan. As is often the way (for example, with Situational Leadership), the authors have developed the model in slightly different ways. You can read about their interpretations at:
Models are useful if they explain or predict aspects of the world. Spiral Dynamics – in either interpretation – offers a way to understand people’s responses to situations and also the cultures of organisations and societies. Culture clashes emerge when sub-groups are forced together, that have value sets at different levels in the spiral.