Another criticism of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is widely taught as a way of understanding people’s motivations.

The hierarchy of needs is a useful starting point – managers often don’t get past first base when it comes to thinking about why other people do things.

Maslow’s theory isn’t beyond criticism. I’ve dealt with criticism of the way the hierarchy of needs theory misses the spiritual dimension before.

Maslow says people attend to basic needs first and progressively deal with more complex matters until they reach  a point he calls self-actualisation at the top of the hierarchy’s pyramid. Not everyone gets that far.

The theory makes crude assumptions that don’t apply to everyone.

Maslow’s idea belongs to a time and place. Maslow was American and he first suggested the hierarchy in the 1940s. The ideas are highly specific to America’s individualist culture where middle-class people worry about their personal needs more than any collective needs.

He makes no allowances for parents worrying about children or workers being concerned about colleagues.

All-in-all Maslow offers a one-dimensional view of how people behave.

As I said earlier, even if Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is wrong, it has value because it teaches managers looking into people’s motivations is important. Too often managers treat people as if there are no external forces driving them.

Sliding down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs first appeared in 1954. The world has changed enormously over the past 55 years and critics have challenged Maslow.

You can read more about Maslow and his hierarchy of needs in Motivation and the hierarchy of needs. There’s criticism in Challenging Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy is often shown as a pyramid. There’s an implication people move up the pyramid as their lives improve.

For an example, a knowledge worker will gain skills, win responsibility and in turn earn extra income taking care of the lower levels of the hierarchy.

According to Maslow this makes it possible to move up to self-actualisation – a kind of western nirvana.

Today’s global financial crisis means many workers are moving in the opposite direction.

Being laid off is traumatic. In some cases people can be at the pinnacle of the hierarchy one day and slide all the way to the bottom the moment the pink slip appears. Finding food, shelter and warmth is suddenly the most important thing on the agenda.

Of course many redundant workers pick themselves up and climb back up the pyramid. The journey is easier the second time around. Knowing the route and recognising the landmarks along the way helps.

Maslow’s theory works well enough on the four bottom stages. You only have to look around and see people at each level. And occasionally you’ll notice people moving up or down.

I don’t think I’ve seen many self-actualised pyramid toppers.

Even in the good times before the economy went pear-shaped Brahmins were thin on the ground. This would be especially so in the higher echelons of the economy (which is where you might expect to find them given the pyramid). Smug, self-satisfied bastards were everywhere.

What does this tell me?

Maslow’s hierarchy is a useful theory, but it’s not a pyramid. It is a four step ladder. And each step up the ladder links to slides that will take you back down again. In other words, a game of snakes and ladders.

It is a paycheck — and it is killing us


After hearing old friends and colleagues whinging about workplace nastiness, which seems to have intensified since the credit crunch, Scot Herrick of Cube Rules asked them how they coped. The answer was that they now just treat their job like a paycheck. (Or as we would say in New Zealand a pay cheque.)

That is they turn up, go through the motions, go home and once a week or once a month the money turns up in their bank account. I’m guessing here that Herrick is writing about knowledge workers and not hamburger flippers sleepwalking through shifts at the local fast food joint. Continue reading

Knowledge worker: clearing out the in-tray

Here’s are three recent posts I found worth reading:

Be a good manager by being generous

Penelope Trunk hits the nail on the head when she argues a good manager should be generous at her Brazen Careerist web site. Trunk uses words like growth and caring. As a male they scare me a bit. I prefer to talk in terms of training or teaching, but she’s coming at things from the right direction.

The idea of being generous certainly squares with my experience, particularly when I’ve worked as an editor. Editors who hog the best stories and don’t share skills with co-workers often have trouble attracting and keeping the best younger journalists.

On the other hand, if as an editor, I can make my reporters look good, I win because I’ve got a first class team that’s getting results and they win because they’re developing their skills. The more you give away, the more you get back.

Trunk’s post is also worth reading for its neat description of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in terms applying directly to the modern workplace.

How to be a good manager: Be generous.

Five ways to increase your free time

Lance Wiggs suggest a recession may be a good time to step back from the daily grind and take a look at how you spend your time. I agree. For example, it’s a great time to step back from a job and start a business – even if only part-time. It’s always hard to make sales when you’re stating out, but costs will be lower, in fact all the resources required are easier to find. And the disciplines learnt starting out in a recession are golden. It’s also a good time to go back to study.

Five ways to increase your free time

Handling Employees With Difficult Personalities

Writing from a management point of view Kathleen O’Connor looks at how to handle certain types of troublesome personalities. I’m not entirely sure about her technique for dealing with ‘naysayers’; her suggested question sounds a touch manipulative to me. Nevertheless, some good ideas.

Handling Employees With Difficult Personalities

How to keep your job How to keep your job

This short How-to wiki from Wired takes two minutes to read. The advice is basic and sound. It comes in short easy to read snatches with great-looking images. I don’t entirely agree with the point about not letting others share your territory. Perhaps office politics are different in the US, but if I had an employee who was unwilling to share information with me I’d see that as a reason to get rid of the uncooperative curmudgeon.

Keep Your Job

Challenging Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Where would van Gogh sit on the hierarchy of needs? Image via Wikipedia

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 some 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.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

One key to motivating people is understanding what drives them.

In western culture individual needs dominate and other forces take a back seat. Group needs are more important in many other cultures, including Māori, indigenous Australians and Pacific Islanders.

People from these cultures put tribal or family needs before their own. Second generation immigrants from these backgrounds can follow either pattern – or both at once.

Abraham Maslow studied human driving forces and developed the ‘hierarchy of needs‘.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs lists human drivers in order of relative importance. Stronger, instinctive, more animal-like drivers sit at the bottom of the hierarchy. The top of the list has weaker, but more advanced, human needs.

The list ordered from bottom to top:


This covers basic needs like breathing, getting enough food, finding a place of shelter, keeping warm and dealing with bodily functions (including sexual gratification).

In crude terms, you can’t progress up the hierarchy if you can’t breath or you are freezing to death.


People need to feel safe from physical danger. They also need physical, mental and emotional security. They get out of the firing line before dealing with higher needs.


Everybody, even those who say otherwise, needs human contact and love. They also need to belong to social groups such as families, organisations, groups and gangs.


The feelings of self-worth and self-reliance. People have a deep-rooted desire for recognition by others in terms of respect, praise and status. The flip side of this is people often have low self-esteem or an inferiority complex.

Maslow says because just about everyone in the western world has the bottom three bases covered, the esteem driver lies at the root of most psychological problems. By extension we can see this is the key to many interpersonal relationships in the workplace.


The highest need a person can have is to meet their full potential and maximise their personal development.

Maslow says people generally move up the hierarchy; progressing up the list is the essence of motivation. Once people have enough to eat, they start to look around for physical safety. Once they have esteem they move towards self-actualisation.

On the other hand if something threatens a person’s more basic needs, they will move down the hierarchy to the level necessary to protect that need.

For instance, people trade self-esteem in return for belonging to a social group. They take great risks with personal safety and don’t care about esteem if they face starvation.

Not everyone agrees with Maslow’s hierarchy, it is controversial. Despite the criticisms it makes a great practical tool for managers.

If you are managing someone and you threaten his or her security in some way, you can expect a strong reaction. People go a long way to defend themselves from threats.

On the other side of the ledger, Maslow says once a person has taken care of a particular need on the list, it ceases to be a motivating force and they progress to the next level.