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Another criticism of Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is 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 people do things.

We all owe Maslow a vote of thanks for getting bosses to think about these things.

Yet Maslow’s theory is not beyond criticism. See how the hierarchy of needs theory misses the spiritual dimension.

Maslow says people attend to basic needs first. They then progressively deal with more complex matters until they reach a point he calls self-actualisation. This sits at the top of the hierarchy’s pyramid.

Not everyone gets that far in life.

Maslow’s crude assumptions

The theory makes crude assumptions that don’t apply to everyone. It is simplistic. The hierarchy of needs is a blunt instrument. A one-size-fits-all solution for a complex problem.

There’s a reason for that. Maslow’s idea belongs to a time and place.

Maslow was American. He first suggested the hierarchy in the 1940s. The ideas are specific to America’s individualist culture. America was rich and everyone’s lives were improving.

In America’s individualist culture middle-class people worry about their personal needs more than any collective needs. It’s all a bit “me… me… me”.

Beyond the individual

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 think and behave. It’s a first approximation, not a finished story.

Even if Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is wrong, it has value. That’s because it teaches managers that looking into people’s motivations is important.

Too often managers treat people as if there are no external forces driving them. For some managers, even thinking about people’s motivations is a foreign idea.

Putting motivation back on the agenda is a starting point for other insights.