The Problem with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Happy July, everyone! I got a chance to read Made to Stick by the Heath brothers over our mini-vacation last week (we went to visit my parents in Nanaimo). It’s another great book about how we make our messages “stick.” At one point in the book, the authors discuss motivation & Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

They argue that thinking of these needs or motivations as a hierarchy is wrong. Everyone pursues all of these needs at the same time (why else would you have starving artists?). The reason we need to consider this is because we often forget to address more than the bottom few layers of needs when we’re trying to motivate people. Here’s an excerpt of their research findings in this area (from p. 184-185):

Imagine that a company offers its employees a $1000 bonus if they meet certain performance targets. There are three different ways of presenting the bonus to the employees:

1. Think of what that $1000 means: a down payment on a new car or that new home improvement you’ve been wanting to make.

2. Think of the increased security of having that $1000 in your bank account for a rainy day.

3. Think of what that $1000 means: the company recognizes how important you are to its overall performance. It doesn’t spend money for nothing.

When people are asked which positioning would appeal to them personally, most of them say No. 3. It’s good for the self-esteem – and, as for No. 1 and No. 2, isn’t it kind of obvious that $1000 can be spent or saved? Most of us have no trouble at all visualizing ourselves spending $1000.  (It’s a bit less common to find people who like to visualize themselves saving.)

Here’s the twist, though: When people are asked which is the best positioning for other people (not them), they rank No. 1 most fulfilling, followed by No. 2. That is, we are motivated by self-esteem, but others are motivated by down payments. THis single insight explains almost everything about the way incentives are structured in most large organizations.

Or consider another version of the same task. Let’s say you’re trying to persuade someone to take a new job in a department that’s crucial to the company’s success. Here are three possible pitches for the new job:

1. Think about how much security this job provides. It’s so important that the company will always need someone in this job.

2. Think about the visibility provided by this job. Because the job is so important, a lot of people will be watching your performance.

3. Think about how rewarding it will be to work in such a central job. It offers a unique opportunity to learn how the company really works.

The chasm between ourselves and others opens again. Most people say No. 3 – an appeal to Learning – would be most motivating for them. Those same people predict that others would be most motivated by No. 1 (Security) and No.2 (Esteem).

In other words, a lot of us think everyone else is living in Maslow’s basement – we may have a penthouse apartment, but everyone else is living below. The result of spending too much time in Maslow’s basement is that we may overlook lots of opportunities to motivate people. It’s not that the  “bottom floors” – or the more tangible, physical needs, to avoid the hierarchy metaphor – aren’t motivational. Of course they are. We all like to get bonuses and to have job security and to feel like we fit in. But to focus on these needs exclusively robs us of the chance to tap more profound motivations.

Seems crazy right? If we were in a position to offer bonuses or new positions, wouldn’t we think it normal to present the reasons that appeal most to us? And yet, that so rarely happens. It’s amazing how quickly our opinion of people drops when we move from thinking of a particular person we know to the concept of employees or society in general. It’s a great reminder to consider all the facets of motivation together, rather than in Maslow’s hierarchy, and then do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

One thought on “The Problem with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

  1. From what I know, the idea of a hierarchy of needs was conceptualized as a basis for investigating human behavior. It was not made to analyze a complex situation over a wide range of people as you’re trying to do. The idea is simply to accept that people have universal needs, so they can be understood at a more personal level. It’s not an attempt at creating an infallible chart for all of life’s ups and downs. Even Maslow said there were exceptions to the hierarchy.
    By the way, the eight level pyramid is not Maslow’s, it’s an updated version from the 90’s.

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