Reading: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Human motivation can be defined as the fulfillment of various needs. These needs can encompass a range of human desires, from basic, tangible needs of survival to complex, emotional needs surrounding an individual’s psychological well-being.

Abraham Maslow was a social psychologist who was interested in a broad spectrum of human psychological needs rather than on individual psychological problems. He is best known for his hierarchy-of-needs theory. Depicted in a pyramid (shown in Figure 1, below), the theory organizes the different levels of human psychological and physical needs in order of importance.

Pyramid. Base level: Physiological. Second level: Safety. Third level: Love and Belonging. Fourth level: Esteem. Top level: Self-actualization.

Figure 1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The needs in Maslow’s hierarchy include physiological needs (food and clothing), safety needs (job security), social needs (friendship), self-esteem, and self-actualization. This hierarchy can be used by managers to better understand employees’ needs and motivation and address them in ways that lead to high productivity and job satisfaction.

At the bottom of the pyramid are the physiological (or basic) human needs that are required for survival: food, shelter, water, sleep, etc. If these requirements are not met, the body cannot continue to function. Faced with a lack of food, love, and safety, most people would probably consider food to be their most urgent need.

Once physical needs are satisfied, individual safety takes precedence. Safety and security needs include personal security, financial security, and health and well-being. These first two levels are important to the physical survival of the person. Once individuals have basic nutrition, shelter, and safety, they seek to fulfill higher-level needs.

The third level of need is love and belonging, which are psycho-social needs; when individuals have taken care of themselves physically, they can address their need to share and connect with others. Deficiencies at this level, on account of neglect, shunning, ostracism, etc., can impact an individual’s ability to form and maintain emotionally significant relationships. Humans need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance, whether it comes from a large social group or a small network of family and friends. Other sources of social connection may be professional organizations, clubs, religious groups, social media sites, and so forth. Humans need to love and be loved (sexually and non-sexually) by others. Without these attachments, people can be vulnerable to psychological difficulties such as loneliness, social anxiety, and depression (and these conditions, when severe, can impair a person’s ability to address basic physiological needs such as eating and sleeping).

The fourth level is esteem, which represents the normal human desire to be valued and validated by others, through, for example, the recognition of success or status. This level also includes self-esteem, which refers to the regard and acceptance one has for oneself. Imbalances at this level can result in low self-esteem or an inferiority complex. People suffering from low self-esteem may find that external validation by others—through fame, glory, accolades, etc.—only partially or temporarily fulfills their needs at this level.

At the top of the pyramid is self-actualization. At this stage, people feel that they have reached their full potential and are doing everything they’re capable of. Self-actualization is rarely a permanent feeling or state. Rather, it refers to the ongoing need for personal growth and discovery that people have throughout their lives. Self-actualization may occur after reaching an important goal or overcoming a particular challenge, and it may be marked by a new sense of self-confidence or contentment.

Hierarchy of Needs and Organizational Theory

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is relevant to organizational theory because both are concerned with human motivation. Understanding what people need—and how people’s needs differ—is an important part of effective management. For example, some people work primarily for money (and fulfill their other needs elsewhere), but others like to go to work because they enjoy their coworkers or feel respected by others and appreciated for their good work. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that if a lower need is not met, then the higher ones will be ignored. For example, if employees lack job security and are worried that they will be fired, they will be far more concerned about their financial well-being and meeting lower needs (paying rent, bills, etc.) than about friendships and respect at work. However, if employees receive adequate financial compensation (and have job security), meaningful group relationships and praise for good work may be more important motivators.

When needs aren’t met, employees can become very frustrated. For example, if someone works hard for a promotion and doesn’t get the recognition it represents, she may lose motivation and put in less effort. Also, when a need is met, it will no longer serve a motivating function—the next level up in the needs hierarchy will become more important. From a management point of view, keeping one’s employees motivated can seem like something of a moving target. People seldom fit neatly into pyramids or diagrams, and their needs are complicated and often change over time. For example, Maria is a long-time employee who is punctual, does high-quality work, and is well liked by her coworkers. However, her supervisor begins to notice that she is coming in late and seems distracted at work. He concludes that Maria is bored with her job and wants to leave. When he calls her into his office for her semiannual performance appraisal, he brings up these matters. To his surprise and chagrin, the supervisor learns that Maria’s husband lost his job six months ago and, unable to keep up with mortgage payments, the two have been living in a local hotel. Maria has moved down the needs pyramid, and, if the supervisor wants to be an effective manager, he must adapt the motivational approaches he uses with her. In short, a manager’s best strategy is to recognize this complexity and try to remain attuned to what employees say they need.