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.

Keeping workers motivated when a company goes through business change is challenging. There are many factors to juggle. Tinkering in one area may unbalance matters elsewhere. Workers worry about losing control during change.

And then there’s uncertainty.

Each person has an uncertainty threshold. Your threshold may be high; someone else may have a lower threshold. When extra uncertainty pushes people above their threshold, they feel uncomfortable.

Most workers – particularly knowledge workers – take everyday uncertainty in their stride. External events, like terrorist attacks or economic downturn lift background uncertainty levels. They reduce people’s capacity to deal with workplace uncertainty. Yet most workers cope well during normal times.

Instability kills motivation

What we once knew as normal times are now fewer and further between. Even so, when a business goes through change, uncertainty levels rise. You can rest assured change will push a lot of people over their uncertainty threshold. And that hurts their motivation.

The first reaction of workers pushed over the uncertainty threshold is to redress the balance. They look for certainty. This is understandable. What happens next is a simple knee jerk reaction to resist further change.

Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter calls this the “Walking off a cliff blindfolded problem”. She says for many people change looks too dangerous. They prefer to stay with the devil they know than commit to the devil they don’t know.

Worker communication

Good managers have no trouble understanding how to deal with this problem. They open lines of communication to the workforce to articulate the plans for change.

Large organisations hire communications professionals or even PR companies to help. I’ve seen staff meetings, PowerPoint presentations, company newsletters, glossy magazines and fancy videos used. Twenty years ago I edited a weekly tabloid newspaper designed to sell a corporate change programme to employees. I know how this from the inside.

Communications fall flat for three reasons.

  1. No amount of spin can sugar a frightening message. If an organisation plans layoffs – words won’t help. People aren’t stupid – that’s why you hired them.They recognise official flim-flam when they see it. Anyone with sense will either be preparing their own escape route or doing all they can to stall the change which will destroy their job. All this changes their motivation from helping the company to, in some cases, hurting it.
  2. Internal company propaganda lacks credibility. Many of us have worked in corporations where, if the management message is “don’t worry your job is safe” know the real story is sackings are coming.It is about trust. It is also about common sense – if you work for a company that hypes its products to customers, you might well be wary of internal communications.
    Another credibility point is corporate propaganda often sells the benefits of change, not outlines the process. Employees need information – this is distinct from the material most companies produce.People want to know exactly what will happen: which departments will close, which jobs move to Tasmania, who gets another role and so on. Feeding them motherhood statements might make you feel important, nobody else will fall for it.
  3. Communication fails when senior managers forget it is a two-way street. There’s little point in articulating a vision if you don’t listen to people’s legitimate fears and deal with them.

In person

The best way for senior managers to communicate is in person – even in a large organisation.

And it isn’t just about words, it is also about action. Leaders – remember that word? – lead from the front.

If there’s a cliff to leap off, workers will be much more willing to leap if they are following their managers.

Frederick Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory says one set of things motivates people and another set de-motivates. They are not the mirror image of each other.

Herzberg calls them motivational and hygiene factors.

Motivational factors belong to an individual. They directly effect performance. Bosses need to pay attention to motivational factors because they control them.

Being able to tick each motivational factor for everyone on your team is important, missing any motivational factors quickly leads to bad attitudes and negative thinking.

Herzberg’s motivational factors include:


The sense of successful conclusion: making a sale, reaching a target or solving a problem. Workers like to feel they do a good job. The sense of achievement is directly related to the size of the challenge. As a boss you should set reachable goals and acknowledge when employees reach them.


Appreciation of a person’s contribution by management or colleagues. It can, but doesn’t necessarily, involve a reward for merit. From a manager’s point of view, it is as simple as saying “thank you”.

Job interest:

The appeal of a particular job. In general this means one with meaning that isn’t repetitive or boring.


Workers need autonomy at work by being allowed to make decisions and being trusted. Many people get real satisfaction from being accountable for the work of others. As a manager you should remember that most employees would be pleased if you delegate important tasks.


Workers need to feel they are going somewhere. Having the opportunity for promotion in either status or responsibility is important, but the prospect of advancement is almost as important as real advancement.

Herzberg called his second group the Hygiene factors. Hygiene factors surround a job.

Companies control hygiene factors at a high level. They should not be confused with organisational culture, but the two are closely related. Hygiene elements won’t necessarily motivate people, any positive effects are modest or short-term, but if they are not present workers will be dissatisfied and un-motivated.

Company policy and administration:

Ask yourself, are policies clearly defined? Is there red tape? How efficient is the organisation? What are internal communications like?


Depends on accessibility, competence and all-round qualities of management.

Interpersonal relations:

The social life within an organisation: are people encouraged to chat around the water cooler and share lunch breaks?


How a company’s total reward package compares with similar companies. Include factors such as cars, superannuation plans, perks and amount of paid annual leave.


This is a measure of the status of people within the organisation. They look at their workspace (corner office and privacy rank highly), their job title, key to the executive washroom, car parking facilities and company credit card among other things.

Job Security:

This is not just about the likelihood of someone losing their job, but also about the possibility of losing their job.

Personal Life:

How does a person’s job affect their life outside of work? Are they expected to work long hours, move to far-flung cities or simple neglect their spouses and children for the sake of corporate goals?

Does the organisation frown on unconventional ways of life even though they have no obvious impact on a person’s work.

Working Conditions:

The physical workplace. The degree of comfort or discomfort has a major effect on satisfaction. Also look at matters like proximity to facilities such as shops, lunch bars and public transport.

John Wareham writes of a psychic contract in his 1991 book, Anatomy of a Great Executive.

Wareham uses psychic contract to describe our subconscious influences.

I met Wareham in Wellington in the early 1990s and we discussed how people could become aware of their psychic contract and use it productively.

A psychic contract is a set of deals we strike with ourselves. We use these deals to define our life goals, how we approach reaching those goals and how we measure success.

Wareham says with the right kind of contract, even ordinary people can do great things. On the other hand, the wrong contract hinders development.

In his book, Wareham goes into depth explaining how we can know our own psychic contracts and how we can reset goals to give ourselves permission to succeed. Knowing your psychic contract is an important part of understanding what drives you.

Here are the five keys:

  • Parental Influence: Wareham says even people who left home a long time ago are influenced by the lessons learnt at their parents’ knee.
    What he calls the ‘prime parental injunction’ sits at the heart of your conscious. We go through our lives trying to become the people our parents wanted us to be. Even people who spend their lives trying to become exactly the opposite of what their parents wished are still influenced by this injunction.
  • Success Criteria: Success isn’t absolute; it is what you want it to be. There’s a close relationship between this and parental influence. Whether you know it or not, you have an internal goal which represent your own vision of success. You won’t feel you’ve arrived until you reach this goal – when you reach it you might set yourself a new goal.
    Wareham says that three-quarters of people in western societies set out first to equal, then to marginally improve upon the way of life and status level they enjoyed in their childhood home.
  • Driving Force: Again this relates back to the previous two criteria. This is our central life interest and we spend much of energy on it. For some people this might be attaining business success, others might look for a happy home life. It can be as simple as ‘being somebody’.
  • Culminating Achievement: Ask yourself the question; “I will know for sure I’m successful the day I ….”. Whatever fills in the blank is your culminating achievement. If you reach this goal then you will have filled your psychic contract. In many cases it is important to reach this goal by a certain age. For example, “I must own a beach house by the time I retire”, or “I want to be a millionaire by the time I’m forty”.
  • Financial Comfort Level: Everybody has a pre-programmed financial comfort level. Most of us work hard until we reach this level, once there we slacken off – not because we are lazy, but because we have satisfied our inner needs and don’t require more. This is particularly important for sales people who earn commission. It is common for a salesperson who has earned enough commission to reach their financial comfort level to sit back for rest of the month.