Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a theory that can be used by used by leaders and managers to unerstand the motivation of others.

Before we jump in and look at the theory first a little background.

Abraham Harold Maslow was an American psychologist who first introduced his hierarchy of needs in a paper entitled ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’.

The theory says that as humans, our actions are motivated by our desire to meet specific needs. Maslow focused in particular on the needs of employees in the workplace. And his theory identified five types of needs that need to be fulfilled in order for you to reach your full potential. The five needs come in a particular order – only when one set of needs is satisfied can you think about meeting the next set of needs in the hierarchy.

Let’s jump in and take a look at the model. from the bottom to the top.

From bottom to top: Physiological, Safety, Love/belonging, Esteem, Self-actualisation
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid

Maslow’s five levels of needs are physiological needs, safety needs, social needs, self esteem needs, and self actualization needs.

The pyramid represents a hierarchy. And what this means is that only when a lower level of needs has been fully met, would you then be motivated by the opportunity to meet the next level of your needs.

The key to understanding Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is to realise that your needs are continually changing. So what motivated you five years ago, or even last month may not motivate you today.

There are a couple of ways the model can be broken down at a high level that you can see on the right and left-hand side of the pyramid here. The first is by breaking the model down into deficiency needs and growth needs. Deficiency needs, sometimes called D-needs are needs that motivate people when they are unmet. Now the longer deficiency needs go unmet, the stronger the desire to fulfil that need will become therefore satisfying these needs is vital to avoid unpleasant feelings or even death in the case of physiological needs. So for example, the longer you go without water, the more crucial getting water will come to you. In fact, if you’re dying of thirst, you’re not going to be interested in, for example, improving your French.

The top level of the hierarchy concerns growth needs. Confusingly, these are commonly known as B needs, which means ‘being’ needs.

You can also break the model down into basic needs, psychological needs and self fulfilment needs.

According to the model, you begin by being motivated to meet your lowest level of needs. And only once you’ve done this, do you move on to being motivated by the next level of needs. And this process continues until you reach the very top level self-actualization. Now, although the theory was originally proposed as a very rigid hierarchy, Maslow later modified it so that the progression up the hierarchy doesn’t have to be quite so strict, and that levels can overlap to some extent. That makes sense because for some people achieving status level four might be more important than for example, attaining love, which is level three.

So let’s examine each of the levels in a little bit more detail. So first, we have the bottom level, which is physiological needs. And these are basic physical needs that you must meet for you to live, they are vital to your survival. These needs include food to eat water to drink air to breathe, shelter to protect you from the elements. Warm to avoid freezing and sleep to refresh you. Note that Maslow included sex within this category as a basic physical need, because reproduction is vital to the survival of the human species.

The second level is safety needs. And once you’ve met your physiological needs, the next needs that you look to satisfy are these safety needs. We all want to feel safe and secure. So these needs include being free from war, natural disasters and violence. In the workplace, these needs include things like job security, a safe working environment, having access to grievance procedures, saving some money each month, and knowing you have health insurance should you become ill.

Physiological needs and safety needs combined are often referred to as your basic needs.

The third level is social needs. At this level, you will have a desire to develop your interpersonal relationships – you want to feel as though you belong to a group. These needs include intimacy, friendship and family and according to Maslow at this level, you will feel this need to belong to one or more groups. That could be a family group or workplace group or even a social group and belonging to a group is commonly called affiliating – this simply means you attach yourself to the group or to a club. Feeling that people love you, that they care about you and that you belong to a group can help you avoid issues such as loneliness, anxiety and depression.

Next, we have esteem needs or self-esteem needs. These needs are your ego needs and your status needs. At this level, you will be motivated by getting recognition from others achieving a high status, respect and feeling important. In a nutshell, you want to feel like you’re making a contribution to the world and that others recognise this contribution. According to Maslow, there are actually two sets of esteem needs; lower esteem and higher esteem. Lower esteem is simply the need for respect from others, whereas higher esteem is self-respect. Note that if you meet your lower esteem needs, but your higher esteem needs are unmet, then it can be common to suffer from a condition known as imposter syndrome.

The top-level is your self-actualization needs or your fulfilment needs. And this is the drive to become the best that you can be. It’s about achieving your full potential as a human being. You can think of the first four levels of the hierarchy as being a set of levels you must master in order to enable you to reach this top level. Because we are each unique, at this final level, each of us will pick something individual to us, at which we want to excel. It could be the desire to be the best parent or it could be a desire to be the best athlete you can be. It could be a desire to create the most beautiful art, but it is unique to you and it’s something that’s going to motivate you and you alone.

There are a couple of variations to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that you should be aware of.

In 1917, Maslow upgraded his original five-level model on two occasions. First, to include cognitive and static needs, and later to include transcendence needs. So the first update to the model includes more growth needs while keeping the deficiency needs the same. Now let’s talk about cognitive needs. So once you fulfilled your deficiency needs, Maslow believed that you would then be motivated by expanding your knowledge. Cognitive needs reflect our need to discover, to experiment and learn how the world around us works to expand our understanding. This is a crucial step towards self-actualization, as it involves opening your mind up and exploring new ideas based on evidence. Next we go up a level to aesthetic needs. Now, this can mean appreciating beautiful things in your life, but it can also mean achieving balance. So for example, walks in nature can lead you to feel refreshed. Likewise, experiencing music can also leave us feeling rejuvenated. When we meet our aesthetic needs, we feel intimately connected to the beauty of the world around us. So the second update Maslow made again cap deficiency needs the same and added one final level to growth needs, called transcendence. Now transcendence is the very peak of the pyramid and refers to having our spiritual needs met, we become motivated by values that transcend beyond ourselves.

Now, there are several advantages and disadvantages associated with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

So first in terms of advantages, then the model is easy to understand and apply at a basic level. It expresses the human desire to achieve. It’s a holistic approach to motivation. Maslow’s model helps us understand that an employee or a person won’t be motivated to perform, even if promised a great reward when they’re tired, cold and hungry.

Now, in terms of disadvantages, then there’s no way to test Maslow’s concept of self-actualization empirically. It doesn’t take account of cultural differences. So for example, the need to feel part of a team is going to be higher in certain countries such as China than it is in other countries such as the US. Also, each person will value each need in different waves. So esteem needs can be essential to you, but your peer may play a higher value on safety needs. So for example, Van Gogh self-actualized through art but lived in poverty for his whole lifetime. This calls into question the need to move up the hierarchy one step at a time. Now, in reality, we typically don’t focus on meeting one need at a time instead, we seek to satisfy many needs at the same time.

So in summary, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shows what motivates us and that what motivates us is constantly changing. This means that what motivated you last year will probably not motivate you this year or today. Maslow’s original hierarchy was broken into five levels – a person starts at the bottom of the hierarchy, and only once needs at that level are met, will they be motivated by trying to meet needs at the next level. Now, broadly speaking, the model can be broken down into two categories of needs. The first deficiency needs are things which motivate us when they’re not present. And second, growth needs which motivate you to grow and become the best you can be.