Maslow Motivation Theory

Maslow Motivation Theory

The Hierarchy of Needs

The Maslow motivation theory is one of the best known and most influential theories on workplace motivation. Here is one of our Manage in a Minute pages, with a short introduction to the basics of this well known theory.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow first developed his famous theory of individual development and motivation in the 1940’s. He suggested that human beings have a hierarchy of needs. That is, that all humans act in a way which will address basic needs, before moving on to satisfy other, so-called higher level needs.

Maslow represented this theory as a hierarchical triangle. This shows how basic needs must be met before one can “climb” the hierarchy, to address more complex needs. For example, first one must meet the basic, physiological need for food, water and warmth. After that the focus would be on the need to be safe, then the need to belong to social groups, and so on up the hierarchy.

The important thing to recognize is Maslow’s contention that one’s sense of well-being. i.e. the ‘feelgood factor’ increases as the higher level needs are met.

Maslow Motivation Theory: the Hierarchy of Needs

The Maslow motivation theory is typically represented by 5 steps:

  • Physiological needs – such as hunger, thirst and sleep
  • Safety needs – such as security, protection from danger and freedom from pain.
  • Social needs – sometimes also referred to as love needs such as friendship, giving and receiving love, engaging in social activities and group membership.
  • Esteem needs – these include both self-respect and the esteem of others. For example, the desire for self-confidence and achievement, and recognition and appreciation.
  • Self-actualization – This is about the desire to develop and realize your full potential. To become everything you can be.

Maslow Motivation Theory

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow believed that human beings have a strong desire to reach their full potential. In his own words:

a man’s desire for self-fulfilment, namely the tendency for him to become actualised in what he is potentially: to become everything that one is capable of being….

Understanding Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy

To understand Maslow’s thinking it’s worth noting some of his main assertions:

  • Broadly, as one set of needs is met, the next level of needs become more of a motivator to an individual.
  • A satisfied need is not a motivator.
  • Only unsatisfied needs motivate an individual. We have an innate desire to work our way up the hierarchy, pursuing satisfaction in higher order needs.
  • Self-actualization stimulates a desire for more due to what Maslow explained as “peak experiences”, created by the overall effect of reaching one’s full potential.

Transcending Maslow’s Original Theory

Later in his life, Maslow discussed an added motivational need: transcendence. This in some ways added to or refined the self-actualisation level of his hierarchy. Transcendence relates to personal fulfillment beyond simply being one’s best. It comes from commitment to things beyond the self. For example through spiritualism, community engagement, charitable work or anything inspired by altruistic intent.

Critiques of Maslow’s Theory

There have been numerous academic criticisms of the theory. These are largely based on the relative narrowness of his original research data, and arguably subjective selection of the sample. Maslow’s original work was based on observations of healthy, college students, representing only 1% of the overall population.

The theory has also been criticised for overlooking cultural factors. Inferring the fixed rankings of a universal human hierarchy of needs from his research ignores a wide range of social factors which differentiate people all across the world. We have illustrated several examples of this in our motivational stories, especially in our article: Benefits of Time Management.

Finally, critics have argued that Maslow’s theory does not allow for changes in personal circumstances or attitudes. These may occur due to changes or pressures from any external factors, often categorised in the PESTLE tool. For example, one’s perception of the importance of a motivational factor may well be influenced by the economics of a recession, or the privations of a war.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic will certainly have changed people’s perceptions of what’s important in life. And arguably, the numerous examples of people caring and contributing to the needs of neighbours, regardless of their own welfare or financial security, may make us think again about the rigid hierarchy of the model.

More on Maslow

If you wish to find out more you can read Maslow’s original article here. Or you may like to read some of our articles related to this topic, for example on flow. You may also find it useful to look at the detailed discussions in some of our related articles, such as Positive Attitude in the Workplace.

Putting Motivation Theory to Work

If you’re looking for more resources on motivation at work, we’ve bundled together these six PDF e-guides to help you put motivation at the heart of performance. At half the normal price! Read the guides in this order and use the tools in each. These guides are great value, packed with practical advice, tips and tools on how to motivate yourself (and others) to perform. (6 pdf guides, 176 pages, 26 tools, 15 tips and 22 insights for half price!)

Motivating Performance
Manage Your Own Performance
15 Performance Management Tips
SMART Goals, SHARP Goals
Workstyle, Lifestyle
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