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.
Positive Psychology is one of the biggest of the big ideas to emerge during my adult lifetime. It starts with an even bigger idea: that insights into the way our minds work can help us address problems. And then it turns that idea on its head.
The impact has been no less than phenomenal. Yes, it has spawned a vast and growing library of books and self-help programs. But it has also genuinely helped people.
Not only has positive psychology given us the tools to live a more fulfilling and happier life. But it also equips us to make workplaces better, more sustainable, and more productive. So, if that doesn’t interest you, I do wonder just how big an idea has to be to grab your attention.
One facet of emotional intelligence is motivation, and this is front and centre of the work of another psychologist. Angela Lee Duckworth’s research interest is competencies other than general intelligence that predict academic and professional achievement. And she has been putting the spotlight on two of them: self-control and perseverance.
Very Short Biography
Angela Lee was born in 1970, and grew up in New Jersey. She was the third child of immigrants from China, who had fled the cultural revolution. The parents were exceptionally results-oriented, leading to three children who have all excelled. However, as the third child, Duckworth recalls feeling a sense of benign neglect, as her parents focused their attention on her older siblings.
She was exceptionally bright and worked hard, entering Harvard and graduating in neuro-biology in 1992. Two years later, she took up a scholarship to study neuroscience at the University of Oxford, leaving with an MSc in 1996.
From there, she joined consulting firm McKinsey and Company (where she met her husband, Jason Duckworth). Promised opportunities to do pro bono work, but being allocated work in the pharmaceuticals sector, Duckworth left and started teaching, first in New York. During this time, she started paying attention to why some children succeeded and others failed.
She joined a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania, in the Positive Psychology Center, under the leadership of Martin Seligman, who supervised her study. She was awarded her PhD in 2006 and took up an academic post there. She is now a Professor of Psychology and leads the Duckworth Lab, which focuses on two traits that predict achievement: grit and self-control.
Grit and Self-control
Duckworth’s work shows that two traits predict success in life:
the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward long-term goals
the voluntary regulation of behavioural, emotional, and attentional impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions.
These two are different. Grit equips you to pursue especially challenging aims over long periods; years or even decades. Self-control operates at a short timescale in the battle against distractions and temptations – willpower, if you like.
Duckworth’s research shows that the two are related, but not totally correlated. People who are gritty tend to be more self-controlled, but the correlation is not total: some people have masses of grit but little self-control, while some exceptionally self-controlling people are not especially gritty. Her team has developed non-commercial scales that measure each.
Duckworth’s research has found that, when they strip out the effects of intelligence, grit and self-control predict objectively measured success outcomes. They have used contexts as diverse as children’s spelling competitions, military officer training, and general high school graduation results.
Because of the importance of these factors, therefore, Duckworth has introduced them into the routines for her family: husband and two daughters. Academically, her team is researching ways to instil self-control and grit into children. She has shown that children can learn and practise strategies to build grit and self-control.
In a recent Pocketblog, we looked at the work of Carol Dweck, on Growth Mindset. Duckworth sees Dweck as a role model and is collaborating with her because she has found that children who have more of a growth mindset tend to be grittier. Once again, there isn’t a perfect correlation, but enough to suggest that one of the things that makes you gritty is a growth mindset: the attitude ‘I can get better if I try harder’. This should help you to be tenacious, determined, and hard-working: gritty.
It is still true that, for most of the history of the discipline of psychology, academics and practitioners have focused on the minority of people whose lives are diminished by their psychological state. But most of us are not and, indeed, some are happy and flourish. Wouldn’t it be a great idea if psychologists turned their focus on understanding this and finding ways to make more of us happy and all of us more happy? That was the question posed by one man, more than any other, and that was Martin Seligman.
Martin Seligman was born in 1946 and grew up in New York. He earned his bachelors degree in philosophy from Princeton, and then moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where he gained a PhD in psychology in 1967, studying learned helplessness in dogs. This is the effect whereby the majority of animals subjected to harsh treatments give up resisting and, even when they are able to escape the discomfort, they do not do so. This work, whilst seen widely as important, has been criticised on animal welfare grounds and probably could not be recreated at universities in the US or many other countries.
Seligman extended his research into the implications for people, moving on to study depression. He worked as Assistant Professor at Cornell from 1967 and was awarded a full professorship at the University of Pennsylvania in 1976, where he remains today, as Professor of Psychology and Director of the Positive Psychology Center.
His research led him to write a major textbook on abnormal psychology that was published in 1997, a year after he was elected President of the American Psychological Association. In his inaugural address in 1998, he announced the theme of his presidency would be Positive Psychology. He wanted to move the focus onto the ways that research can be made practical in helping people to thrive and be happy. The term Positive Psychology had been coined by Abraham Maslow, a founder of humanistic psychology, which focuses on strengths and potential rather than neurosis and pathology. Maslow was a theorist who gathered little experimental evidence to support his ideas. Seligman was determined that empirical research is necessary.
Seligman is now very much seen as a leader – maybe ‘the’ leader – in positive psychology today. He is Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and has authored many widely read and respected popular books on the subject, as well as scholarly papers.
Perhaps the idea that most closely attaches to Seligman is the idea of Character Strengths and Virtues, and the free Values in Action assessment of your signature strengths. This allows you to fully reflect on where your true strengths lie, based on Seligman and Christopher Peterson’s framework of six main character virtues and the three to five components of each. The six virtues and their strengths are:
Wisdom and Knowledge
Love of Learning
Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence
Seligman extended this idea, by looking at what makes us happy. His simple model successfully combines the aspects of self-interest and community contribution that have divided philosophers for millennia. He argues that there are three dimensions:
A Pleasant Life
A life of comfort, pleasure and gratification is the start to happiness…
A Good Life
But to be truly happy we also need to put our strengths to work. In this way we can fully engage with what we do, and enter what Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly calls flow states. For a truly fulfilling life, however, we need…
A Meaningful Life
We acquire a meaningful life when we are able to deploy our strengths not just for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others, for society or for ideas that we feel to be bigger than ourselves. We need to contribute. In this, of course, we can see the influence of Maslow very clearly.
In Seligman’s latest book, Flourish, we see his summary of work to date, in a simple mnemonic that points us to what he sees as the five sources of wellbeing – necessary conditions, if you like.
Positive emotion – how good you feel. Engagement – the total immersion you get in a flow state. Relationships – with friends, family, and society, through collaboration, care, and intimacy. Meaning – finding something you perceive as a purpose that is bigger than yourself. Achievement – the sense of fulfilment in achieving something for its own sake, rather than for the sake of e=positive emotion, meaning, or relationships.
Positive Psychology is an important component of modern workplace thinking and has become a powerful force in organisational thinking with its off-shoot, ‘Positive Organisational Scholarship’. At the forefront of this rapidly developing field is Kim Cameron.
Kim S Cameron was born in 1946 and earned his bachelors and masters degrees in sociology and social psychology at Brigham Young University in 1970 and 71. He went on to take higher degrees in Administrative Sciences at Yale, gaining an MA in 1976 and his PhD in 1978.
From there he held a number of academic posts, at the Universities of Wisconsin, Colorado, Brigham Young, and Case Western, before taking his current dual post as Professor in both the School of Education and the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan in 2001.
There, he co-founded the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship; now the Center for Positive Organizations. This is the hub of Cameron’s research on Positive Organizational Scholarship, with a mission to help design high-performing organisations that bring out the best in people.
Positive Organizational Scholarship (or POS) is a synthesis of many strands of research and thinking:
the organisational process that produces extraordinary outcomes (‘Positive Deviance’)
Organisational Design (OD)
Appreciative Inquiry (AI)
Citizenship behaviours and community psychology
Ethics and prosocial behaviour
Together, these things examine how to harness and develop human strengths in an organisational setting. At the core is the idea of ‘positive deviance’ and it advocates a focus on noticing, celebrating, and institutionalising behaviours, attitudes and processes that lead to extra-ordinary positive results. This is in contrast to a lot of organisational behaviours that currently focus around under-performance and finding corrective procedures.
This more familiar approach can certainly bring a poor organisation up to a baseline adequate standard of performance. POS suggests that to achieve excellence, organisations and their leaders and managers need to switch to an ‘affirmative bias’ and start to endorse the best, rather than critique the poor performances.
This book searches out lessons to learn from the spectacular transformation of the project to clean up a highly contaminated nuclear site at Rocky Flats, Colorado. In the book, the authors, Cameron and his PhD student, Marc Levine, assert that a huge transformation in performance was generated by simultaneously pursuing four conflicting strategies.
They use the ‘Competing Values Framework’developed by Cameron’s long-time collaborator, Robert Quinn. This suggests that organisations have a prevailing culture dictated by their values, along two dimensions of:
Either: efficient internal processes or competitive external positioning
Either: flexibility and adaptability or stability and incrementalism
The four cultures that result are oriented towards prevailing behaviours:
Clan Culture – internal/flexible – oriented towards collaboration
Adhocracy – external/flexible – oriented towards creation
Market culture – external/stable – oriented towards competing
Hierarchy – internal/stable – oriented towards control
The positive deviance that led to the phenomenal objective success* of the project was ascribed by Cameron and Levine to building an environment that equally valued all four elements of culture, and therefore demonstrated collaboration, creativity, competition, and control at the same time.
* Closure and decontamination of the facility was forecast to take 70 years and cost $36 billion. Out-turn cost was $6 billion, and the project was complete in 10 years
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.
Csikszentmihalyi was born to a Hungarian family in a city long disputed by Hungary, Italy and Croatia – now called Rijeka and part of Croatia; it was, at the time of his birth in 1934 a part of Italy, named Fiume. He emigrated to the United States at the age of 22, and got a BA and PhD from the University of Chicago, going on to become a a professor and chairman of the Department of Psychology. He is the founder and a co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center – a non-profit research institute that studies positive psychology.
Flow, in a Nutshell
Csikszentmihalyi’s signature research was into Flow States – those states of mind when we are totally absorbed in an activity, and can therefore want nothing else in the world, at that time, than to continue uninterrupted. He describes these Flow States as the optimum states for a human being, and catalogues the three conditions under which they arise:
The task has a clear and worthwhile goal
The task is sufficiently challenging to stretch us to our limits (and maybe a little beyond) but not so challenging for us that we find ourselves anxious and hyper-alert for failure
The task offers constant feedback on our progress and performance levels
In the book, he relates interviews with over 90 creative people from many fields of the arts, sciences and humanities. From those, he distils a great many lessons. For me, one of the simplest is most valuable, his five steps to creativity:
Becoming immersed in a problem that is interesting and arouses curiosity.
Ideas churn around at an unconsciousness level.
The “Aha!” moment when the answers you reach unconsciously emerge into consciousness.
Evaluating the insight to test if it is valuable and worth pursuing.
Translating the insight into a workable solution – Edison’s ’99 per cent perspiration’.
This to me explains why we seem to get our best ideas when out walking, sipping a coffee, or in a shower. These are not the times when we solve our problems: they are the times when our conscious mind is sufficiently unoccupied to notice the answers that our unconscious has developed.
What does this mean for managers?
If you want creative thinking from your team, I think it tells us four things:
You need to give people time to understand and research the problem, making it as interesting and relevant to them as you can.
You need to let people go away and mull, allowing a reasonable period for ideas to incubate.
You need to bring people back together with no distractions and pressures, so that the ideas can naturally emerge.
You need to create separate stages of your process for evaluating the solutions and then for implemental thinking, when you hone the preferred solution into a workable plan.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at TED
Here is an excellent video from 2004 of the man himself…