70 years of Maslow

A good recent piece on BBC News magazine by William Kremer on Claudia Hammond marks 70 years of Abraham Maslow’s motivation theory, or as the writers put it “the pyramid that beguiled business”. And as many others have, Kremer and Hammond find for and against Maslow’s model. Notably, the lack of clear empirical evidence to support his theory is problematic. Subsequent studies found evidence for alternative models, and it seems someone always has a new take on motivation. Take the popularity of Dan Pink’s best-selling ‘Drive’ as just one example.

Yet there is still much to admire, especially Maslow’s focus on the human desire to achieve, move on, and progress towards what he called ‘self-actualisation’ or fulfilment. Maslow’s thinking was about humans in general, but was rapidly taken up and applied to work in particular. It has had a lasting effect on management practice, particularly the factors at work which can enhance or erode our chances of moving up towards fulfilment.

When we look at how we get our needs met, work is a significant factor, whether it’s putting a roof over our heads, making friends or doing what we’re best at. Work is not the only factor – but in a post-industrial world it’s a major one, particularly how we’re managed.

It can be a real ‘welcome to your job’ moment for a new manager to realise just how much impact they have on how someone feels they fit in and belong, how their self-esteem is holding up, and the extent to which they can develop and play to their strengths.

But let’s remember that Maslow’s original idea was about the human condition in general, not just work in particular. And let’s remember Maslow’s middle level: belonging and love. We of course need to have food, shelter and safety. Great contemporary workplaces can contribute much to our self-esteem and self-actualisation. And yes, we can get a strong sense of belonging in the right work environment. But it’s not a substitute for the love of a partner/spouse, family and friends.

So maybe we can thank Maslow for a timely reminder, get a sense of perspective and spend precious time with the people who really matter to us.

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