It’s an oversimplification, but Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs says that you can figure out how people will behave at any moment by looking at their underlying needs. Maslow believed a starving person would attend to finding food first, putting aside every other consideration including social niceties.
While Maslow’s theory has its uses, most modern management experts and psychologists regard it with suspicion. One obvious criticism is that the hierarchy doesn’t take into account acts of selflessness, bravery, charity and heroism.
You might ask yourself why some German citizens hid Jews from the Nazis. Or why starving servicemen in Japanese prisoner of war camps would give up their own food supplies to help the weak and dying. But then most economists and biologists would also find these seemingly irrational acts hard to explain.
Likewise, many of the best and most creative painters and poets – who Maslow would describe as self-actualising – were in fact starving in attics when they did their best work. Where does Vincent van Gogh sit on the hierarchy of needs?
And we can all think of examples of filmmakers, musicians and other artists whose creativity dried up when they hit the big time. Years ago I worked as a music journalist and discovered that many financially challenged rock bands would deliver a brilliant first album, score a huge contract and then wallow self-indulgently in the studio for album number two. Many never got the opportunity to make a third record.
Jim Clemmer and Art MacNeil make an important criticism of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory in their book “Leadership skills for Every Manager” (ISBN 0861889630). The book is out of print, but you may find a copy of it in a decent university library (If you’ve got it and no longer want it, get in touch with me).
Clemmer and McNeil suggest that Manslow misses the point because he left people’s spiritual dimension out of the picture. They say that humans look for meaning in their lives and that meaning transcends any animalistic drives. In their words, “even starving people are not immune to the lure of higher values.” Think about van Gogh.
A more scientific criticism was published in the 1977 edition of the learned journal, “The Annual Review of Psychology”. Here, A.K. Korman, J.H. Greenhaus and I.J. Badin wrote that there’s no empirical (that is, researched) evidence to support Maslow’s ideas. In fact, they argue the empirical evidence points in the opposite direction. Other critics have pointed out that Manslow came up with his theories after observing only a handful of people and it lacks scientific rigor.
We’ll leave these debates for the academics. In my opinion, the important thing about Maslow’s idea is that it is a good, maybe crude, starting point for understanding what drives other people. From our point of view, managing and motivating other Knowledge Workers, the Hierarchy of Needs provides a useful template that sometimes, but not always, helps to explain how and why people behave.