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AmbassadorsMaslow’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.

Yet Maslow’s theory is not 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.

Maslow had crude assumptions

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

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. There 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. 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.

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs first appeared in 1954. The world has changed over the past 55 years. We’re not the same and critics have challenged Maslow.

You can read more about Maslow and his hierarchy of needs in Motivation and the hierarchy of needs. Some criticism is covered 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.

Take a knowledge worker. The person will gain skills, win responsibility and in turn earn extra income. This takes care of the lower levels of the hierarchy.


According to Maslow this makes it possible to move up to self-actualisation. Think of this as 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. This can also happen when disaster strikes. Finding food, shelter and warmth are once more the most important things on the agenda.

Many redundant workers pick themselves up and climb back up Maslow’s 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.

You don’t see many self-actualised pyramid toppers.

Even in the good times before the economy nose-dived, Brahmins were thin on the ground. This would be especially so in the higher levels of the economy (which is where you might expect to find them given the pyramid).

What does this tell us?

Maslow’s hierarchy is a useful theory, but it’s not a pyramid. It is a four-step ladder. At each step up the ladder there’s a slide that could take you back down again. In other words, it’s a game of snakes and ladders.

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.

Herrick’s understandable response was to point out these conditions “are killing you”. He then went on to discuss how civilisation is only so many meals away from breaking down. Something Americans would be aware of after Hurricane Katrina.

Herrick’s key point was:

When people are working “because it is a paycheck” and not because they remotely like the job, the company — and the country — is in far more trouble then financials will tell you. Disengaged people won’t (and can’t) help you solve the problems of the day. They can’t rise to the occasion to save a customer or resolve a process. Disengaged people can’t lead their work and support their teams.

What Herrick is describing here is a process that is happening all over the world right now. Workers are sliding down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This is precisely what happens when times are tough. As Maslow puts it, starving people will attend to gathering food before worrying about social niceties. Herrick’s ex-colleagues are starting to act and think like rats in a crowded cage because survival is more important than being a decent colleague.

Of course it would be easy for me to suggest people who find themselves in this kind of position should get out and find another job. We all know it isn’t that easy. On the other hand, figuring out how to climb back up that Hierarchy of Needs or, at least, to not slide further down, may help.


It is a paycheck — and it is killing us | Cube Rules.

Challenging Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Managing knowledge workers: motivation and the hierarchy of needs


It’s an oversimplification, but Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs says that you can figure out how people will behave by looking at their underlying needs. Maslow believed a starving person would find food first, putting aside every other consideration, including social niceties.

Maslow’s theory has its uses. Yet 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 soldiers 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 what look like irrational acts hard to explain.

Painters starving in attics

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. I discovered that many rock bands would deliver a brilliant first album, score a huge contract, 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 university library (If you’ve got it and no longer want it, get in touch with me).

Spiritual dimension

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. 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 point 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. 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 others, the Hierarchy of Needs is a useful template that sometimes, not always, helps to explain how and why people behave.

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.

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.