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Maslow's hierarchy of needs: Motivation

One key to understanding someone’s motivation 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‘. It can help explain motivation.

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.

Maslow on self-actualisation

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.