Maslow’s Hiearchy of Needs: Psychology in the Workplace

Maslow’s pyramid of human needs, proposed in 1943, has been one of the most cognitively contagious ideas in the behavioral sciences. Anticipating later evolutionary views of human motivation and cognition, Maslow viewed human motives as based in innate and universal predispositions. We revisit the idea of a motivational hierarchy in light of theoretical developments at the interface of evolutionary biology, anthropology, and psychology. After considering motives at three different levels of analysis, we argue that the basic foundational structure of the pyramid is worth preserving, but that it should be buttressed with a few architectural extensions. By adding a contemporary design feature, connections between fundamental motives and immediate situational threats and opportunities should be highlighted. By incorporating a classical element, these connections can be strengthened by anchoring the hierarchy of human motives more firmly in the bedrock of modern evolutionary theory. We propose a renovated hierarchy of fundamental motives that serves as both an integrative framework and a generative foundation for future empirical research.

Almost 70 years have passed since Abraham Maslow’s classic 1943 Psychological Review paper proposing a hierarchical approach to human motivation. Maslow’s model had an immense influence on the field of psychology, including the subfields of personality, social psychology, psychopathology, developmental psychology, and organizational behavior, and it continues to be cited widely in textbooks (e.g., Kreitner & Kinicki, 2008; Myers, 2009; Nairne, 2003). Indeed, the powerful visual of a pyramid of needs (see ) has been one of the most cognitively contagious ideas in the behavioral sciences.

Unfortunately, many behavioral scientists view Maslow’s pyramid as a quaint visual artifact without much contemporary theoretical importance. We suggest, on the contrary, that the idea can take on a new significance when combined with later theoretical developments. In this article, we revisit the idea of a hierarchical approach to human motivation, suggesting some renovations to Maslow’s approach. This revised model not only provides useful connections to current innovations in psychology (e.g., evolutionary and positive psychology) but also raises a number of broader empirical questions for future research.

The implications of this three-level analysis are significant. Among other things, considerations at the functional level of analysis suggest that, although self-actualization may be of considerable psychological importance, it is unlikely to be a functionally distinct human need. Consequently, we have removed self-actualization from its privileged place atop the pyramid and suggest that it is largely subsumed within status (esteem) and mating-related motives in the new framework. Consideration of the developmental level of analysis led us to draw on the biological framework of life-history theory. Following this perspective, the top of the pyramid includes three types of reproductive goals: mate acquisition, mate retention, and parenting. And consideration of a proximate level of analysis along with life-history theory led us to change the way in which the goals are depicted in the pyramid: Rather than depicting the goals as stacked on top of one another, we instead depict them as overlapping (see ). This change explicitly reflects the assumption that early developing motives are unlikely to be fully replaced by later goals but instead continue to be important throughout life, depending on individual differences and proximate ecological cues.

We end by discussing some of the broader questions raised by these renovations and their implications for the humanistic elements underlying Maslow’s approach to human motivation. Modern evolutionary theory and research provides a new perspective on two key features of the traditional humanistic approach. First, it is now clear that human beings indeed have an array of diverse motivational systems not well represented by invoking only a few general motives shared with laboratory rats. Second, evolutionary logic is perfectly compatible with a humanistic emphasis on positive psychology. Indeed, a fuller understanding of evolved motivational systems—and their dynamic connection to environmental opportunities—can be used to enhance human creativity, productivity, kindness, and happiness.

Maslow’s proposal of multiple and independent motivational systems was advanced partially as an alternative to the influential behaviorist view championed by Watson, Skinner, and Dollard and Miller. In the middle of the 20th century, the accepted view was that there were only a handful of “primary drives,” such as hunger and thirst. These few primary drives were presumed to be present early in life and to provide the foundation for later “secondary drives” that are learned via simple conditioning principles. For example, a child’s mother is always present during nursing, and she continues to provide intermittent food rewards even after weaning. Because of the repeated association between food and social contact, the child learns to desire contact with other people.

Probably the most enduring aspect of Maslow’s theory is his idea of organizing fundamental motives into a hierarchy. The hierarchical arrangement suggested that some motives take precedence over others, which in turn take precedence over others. If a person is starving, for example, the desire to obtain food will trump all other goals and dominate the person’s thought processes. This idea of cognitive priority is represented in the classic hierarchy shown in .

In addition to suggesting that some motives take cognitive priority over others, Maslow’s scheme also assumed that an individual’s priorities shifted from lower to higher in the hierarchy as the person matured. That is, Maslow’s hierarchy also reflected developmental priority. For example, infants are only concerned with physiological needs, such as hunger and thirst, and concerns about affection presumably emerge later in development. After a person accomplishes the goal of winning affection, he or she focuses increasingly on gaining esteem, and concerns about affection are presumed to fade into the background.

Maslow also proposed that the goal at the top of the hierarchy is self-actualization—fulfilling one’s creative potential. Self-actualization might mean different things to different people (e.g., a musician would pursue music, an artist would pursue painting, a researcher would pursue knowledge in a specific area). According to Maslow’s hierarchical approach, self-actualization only becomes a priority after all other needs are satisfied. Maslow’s focus on self-actualization combines two recurring themes in his approach: the emphasis on positive aspects of human psychology over negative aspects and the belief that some human motivations are not directly linked to physiological needs of the homeostatic variety, implying that they are therefore not well understood by studying hungry rats.

Why Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs Matters

Deficiency vs. growth needs

According to Maslow’s hierarchy, the five levels of human needs are divided into either deficiency needs or growth needs. Deficiency needs, sometimes called “D-needs,” arise from deprivation of a basic need for either survival or more primal levels of satisfaction. This applies to each of the first four levels, which all speak to the basic requirements of physical and psychological health. Without satisfying the basics, one can never grow.

Growth needs, also called “being needs” or “B-needs,” pertain to the desire for self-improvement and personal growth and are reserved for the top of the original five needs of Maslow’s hierarchy.

What is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

Psychologist Abraham Maslow first introduced this hierarchy in his work on the theory of human motivation in 1943, though he would further refine his theory in the years to come. This work serves as a form of motivational psychology for people to realize their full potential and sense of contentment. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, also referred to as Maslow’s theory of motivation, divides basic human needs into five levels: physiological needs, safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization. It is often depicted as a pyramid that represents the need for an individual to fulfill each level in ascending order up the pyramid. This hierarchy can be applied to many aspects of life, including the workplace. For example, employees who don’t meet the lowest level of needs might make decisions based on compensation, their physical safety or concerns about job security.

The five levels of needs

To further understand Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and how they can be applied in the workplace or elsewhere, you need to understand the needs and how they impact motivation. Again, each need builds on the last, allowing a person to feel more fulfilled and ready for the next level, which in turn encourages motivation and creative thinking.

1. Physiological needs

Physiological needs refer to the most basic human needs for survival. All people need access to food, water, clothing and shelter—including adequate access to restrooms and comfortable temperatures. Physiological needs are the most important for survival, and until they are met, there is no motivation to meet other needs.

2. Safety

Safety is the second vital need, as people need a sense of security and order to feel comfortable and safe in their surroundings. For example, one of your priorities might be to provide a safe living space for your family, which is why you work hard to provide for that need. At work, it’s also important to feel that your physical safety is valued and prioritized.

Ensuring a safe workplace could include ergonomic office furniture that properly supports you and reduces the risk of injury, along with securing the building to prevent potentially dangerous people from entering. Job security and stable finances also provide a feeling of safety.

3. Love and belonging

The third level of Maslow’s hierarchy, love and belonging, pertains to how you socialize and value yourself among others. People feel a sense of purpose or connection when they are part of a group. This can apply to the feeling of intimacy among friends and family, but also to a sense of belonging in the workplace as well. Many companies have initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion, but belonging can be more difficult to capture. When leadership purposely creates an inclusive community it can help harbor a feeling of belonging for all team members. When you feel like you belong and fit in with a team, it is easier to feel motivated to work hard and achieve results.

4. Esteem

5. Self-actualization

The final and highest level of Maslows original hierarchy of needs is self-actualization, which is defined as realizing one’s full potential. At work, a person ultimately wants to feel they are doing the best they can in their position, which helps them feel motivated to continue upward on their path to success. A self-actualized employee feels empowered and trusted, which encourages growth and engagement.

Later additions to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

In the 1960s and ’70s, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was expanded to include a longer list of needs, ultimately altering the pyramid to hold eight needs in all. Cognitive needs—the need for new knowledge—became the new fifth need, and aesthetic needs—the need to find and appreciate aesthetic beauty—were added as the sixth need before achieving self-actualization. Lastly, the eighth and final growth need is the need for transcendence, meaning the need to transcend the personal self, which could apply to spiritual experiences or serving the greater good of humanity.

Implementing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

As you apply Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in your professional life, you may find areas that could improve. An employer can provide ways to fulfill many of these needs, but you also need to be aware of how your needs impact your overall success in certain roles. For example, if you struggle with rejection, a career in sales could make it more challenging to meet your needs.

To reach the fifth level of Maslow’s original motivational theory in the workplace, you must be self-actualized, which means you understand your skills and abilities, as well as what you’re capable of handling. A healthy and engaged workforce is filled with individuals who feel self-actualized.

When your basic needs are met, you feel safe and supported, you have a sense of belonging, your esteem is high and you know your full potential, your attitude may also influence those around you. Engagement and motivation are often team-based attitudes, so a team of individuals who feel their needs are being met can create a more positive, engaging culture within the workplace.

Employers with low engagement rates often have higher turnover rates, as well as issues with low morale and unhappy employees. By investing in the overall happiness of its employees, a business can increase satisfaction while boosting engagement and motivation, which ultimately impacts productivity.

It is important to assess whether you feel your needs are being met in your current position. Your needs are important and valuable, so keep them high on your list of priorities. You can also look for ways to make changes in your professional life and create a positive, engaging working atmosphere.

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