In the early 1940s, Abraham Maslow started asking questions about human motivation— questions I study, too. In 1943, he published his first article on a theory he called the Hierarchy of Needs.
Today, the theory is usually depicted as a pyramid, although Maslow didn’t use one in his original writings; it’s a textbook creation. At the bottom are physiological needs: food and water. The next levels representsafety needs, then love needs, then esteem needs. Self-actualization(personal growth and fulfillment) is at the pinnacle, suggesting that it can only be reached when the other four needs are met.
People latched onto this pyramid structure immediately. But, in doing so, they forgot Maslow’s many notes about the dynamic messiness of human motivation, which we usually experience in one conscious stream rather than small parts. “We have spoken so far as if this hierarchy were a fixed order but actually it is not nearly as rigid as we may have implied,” Maslow wrote. He would probably be appalled at how we use his theory today.
Case in point: In my work as a psychologist and organizational consultant, I recently sat in on a strategy session at a global company. The managers were discussing how to better engage their employees. One senior executive suggested they focus on cash-based incentives. Why? She cited Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, explaining that salaries and benefits would provide people with food and shelter – physiological needs. Employees could then move up the pyramid to achieve career success and, eventually, a higher purpose – the feeling that their work bettered society. She felt that the organization had to get compensation right first.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard Maslow’s name in a meeting of managers. The hierarchy has become something of an unquestioned “fact”. It’s cited in HR manuals, business class syllabi, and leadership presentations. People use it to push the idea that the basics – like a fair salary or a safe work environment – are the employee engagement tools that matter most. But here’s the problem: the pyramid version of Maslow’s theory doesn’t usually apply to the world of professional work.
In today’s developed-world workplace, physiological and safety needs are, for the most part, already met. Salary and benefits can enhance motivation, but organizations shouldn’t focus on them disproportionately because emotional experiences can matter equally, if not more.
In a recent study of outstandingly engaged business units, I asked people what drove their high engagement scores. Only 4% of respondents mentioned pay. Instead, they highlighted feeling autonomous and empowered, and a sense of belonging on their teams. We all know people who trade high salaries and even safety for love, esteem,and self-actualization at work – the accountants who become high school teachers, or the journalists who move to war zones with pennies in their pockets.
The reality is that human needs can’t be neatly arranged into a pyramid. Motivation isn’t simple, and it’s certainly not linear. Different people are motivated by different things. Even Maslow began to worry about the uses of his theory at the end of his life, arguing that the most important way to achieve personal satisfaction was to face one’s inner demons. He entered psychoanalysis himself at age 61 to deal with long-repressed anger.
I understand why we’ve latched onto the hierarchy of needs. A motivation checklist would be nice. But we’re not working with a fixed or universal process. There are many factors that contribute to engagement, including teams, autonomy, interesting work, recognition, and individual development. So don’t let the basics of compensation and benefits drive your people strategy or the way you lead. Your employees deserve much more than a pyramid.