People & Human Resources

Maslow was on to something

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Motivating staff (and not just Gen-Y) is a hot topic. This is also where Maslow’s ‘needs’ pyramid is particularly relevant.


Michael Phillips

For anyone battling the dilemma of how to motivate staff (not just Gen-Y) I stumbled across some old university information last week that may be of use. The elective subject was “Organisational behaviour” and the module was “Motivation”. It is here that I found the teachings of Abraham Maslow.

You see Maslow had a theory, so I feel quite close to Abe as anyone that knows me will tell you I’ve got more theories than political parties have election promises. 

Maslow came up with his “heirarchy of needs” theory, which was basically a pyramid with each layer being a separate category of “needs”. The pyramid is to be followed upwards from the “physiological” to the “self-actualisation” needs.

The most interesting aspect of his theory is that the first four levels are “deficiency needs” and the top level is considered “growth needs”. A person will look to satisfy their deficiency needs first and the growth needs after this, and if they find they lose a deficiency need their focus will shift away from the growth needs. It’s exactly like a building; if you take away the bottom pieces the top will not hold up.

So, what am I going on about and how does it relate to the business world?

Well, what we need to do is to first understand the model and then apply it. Obviously employment cannot assist greatly with the first three levels (other than financial security and friendships), but the top two levels are the key for employers and managers.

Employment to the majority of people goes a long way to improving their self esteem and self actualisation. If a person is recognised for a great effort at work via feedback, promotion, responsibility etc, this can provide one of the most valuable “needs” in maintaining that person’s esteem and hence their motivation. After all, a motivated employee is a happy employee.

The other interesting point on this is that while we always tend to think money when it comes to motivating an employee, Maslow’s theory challenges this. It makes you really think what is behind a person’s motivation to work and develop new ideas to satisfy this. Yes, it is difficult to generalise, but it is a great base from which to start and then you need to adapt it to the individual in question.

Also, for those non-believers, and in something of a contradiction to last week’s blog, I have a great example of Maslow’s theory in practice.

We had a new employee accept a position with our business this week and she is 26 and is taking less money than was offered elsewhere. So, what were her reasons? She was attracted by the “culture” of the business. The interview was laid back and far from daunting, she met numerous other staff members and was impressed, and she was able to see that this was an investment in a fulfilling career. Not a quick grab for some extra cash and move on to a new job in a year.

This, I have to say, is one of the most rewarding feelings as a manager and hopefully she will still be with us in 10 years doing a completely different role and still feeling challenged and fulfilled.


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Shoana McManus writes: Great topic Michael . I have also picked up on Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs in the training course I run on Managing and Motivating Generation X and Y. My theory is that Generation Y in particular have many of their ‘deficiency’ needs fulfilled in our current society due to the dutiful and diligent Baby Boomers who have been meeting those needs thus far in life. So like you I think the Esteem and Self Actualisation components of Maslow’s theory are a great tool for businesses to look at when wanting to motivate and retain Generation Y. The light bulb certainly went on for several participants in my program the last two times I have run it with this approach.



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