Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow looked to expand on Human Relations Theory. His argument was that if motivation could be driven by managers filling their employees’ needs, then managers should look to understand which of these needs are the most important. Through examinations of people who Maslow believed to be exemplary, such as Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt, Maslow claimed that people would only be motivated to perform to their fullest extent if their higher order needs would be fulfilled by said performance. In other words, it is not enough for a manager to simply pay their employees more, as pay eventually ceases to become a motivator once people have enough money. Instead, managers must find other needs that their employees possess, and look link performance to the satisfaction of these needs.

Maslow argues that there were five main categories of needs, which were arranged in a hierarchy. The first needs to be fulfilled were physiological needs, followed by security needs, social needs, esteem needs and finally the need for self-actualization.

Physiological needs are the most basic requirements of human existence, such as food, water and rest. Maslow argued that if these needs were not fulfilled, then people would devote all their needs to fulfilling them, and no extent of social interactions or esteem felt by people would compensate.

Once the physiological needs were met, people would next consider their security, and the extent to which they were safe from any harm. As such, people will look to live in a safe area, visit the doctor, look for a secure job, and build up savings so they would not risk being poor. As this is above physiological needs in the hierarchy, Maslow claimed that people who were hungry would put themselves at risk to obtain food. This explains why people in war torn regions will still attempt to plant crops in former minefields: the food is a more pressing need than their own safety.

Once people feel safe, secure and physiologically satisfied, they will begin to prioritise their social needs. This involves having meaningful social interactions with others, manifested as a need for friends, a need to belong to a social group, and a need to both give and receive love.

Once a person has fulfilled these social needs, they begin to desire esteem needs. Esteem needs are defined as those related to someone’s psychological image of themselves. As such, they can be external, such as receiving praise, recognition and promotion; or internal, such as knowing that a job has been done well, and having a high level of self respect.

Finally, the need for self-actualisation represents the highest level Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Maslow argued that it represented the pinnacle of the human condition, only being reached by the most exemplary people. In addition, Maslow argued that the nature of this need is such that it can never be fully satisfied, as people can always strive to better themselves and reach a higher level of achievement. This explains why notable people such as Einstein continued to work throughout their lives, after achieving fame, fortune and recognition.

Implications for managers and limitations

Maslow’s theory implies that managers cannot simply pursue a single all encompassing theory of management, such as scientific management or human relations theory, if they wish to maximise the performance of their workers. Instead, they must look to fulfil all their employees’ needs through their management style and the design of the job and financial rewards.

For physiological needs, managers need to provide employees with the opportunity to rest and eat, as well as wages to purchase food and drink. To fill security needs, workers need a
safe working environment with job security, together with a wage that is enough to afford their desired lifestyle, house and quality of life. Social needs require managers to focus on team work and social events, as well as giving employees a chance to socialise outside of work, and esteem needs are fulfilled through recognition of achievements, rewards for good performance and a merit based promotion system. Finally, self-actualisation can only be achieved by allowing employees to reach what they feel is their full career potential, and allowing them to continue to develop as they do.

The main limitation of Maslow’s theory is that different people will place different weightings on their needs, and will have different relationships between motivating factors and their needs. For example, some people may see money as merely fulfilling a security need, and will be happy to work to a certain level of wages and achievement. In contrast, some people may see their earning power as a key part of their self esteem, and will work harder and harder if they are given the opportunity for increasing financial rewards. It is also difficult for a manager to determine what need is driving an employee at any one time, particularly as employees’ needs will often be affected by external factors such as their family life and social life outside of work.

In addition, there is no empirical evidence to support Maslow’s hierarchy as applying to all people, and there is evidence to support a different order of needs in many circumstances. For example, people such as Ghandi and Mother Teresa sacrificed some of their security to help others, hence achieving esteem and self actualisation without fulfilling their security needs. Also, many artists and actors will struggle by on minimum wages, with only minimum food and security, in the pursuit of recognition and achievement within their chosen career. There is also little evidence to support the argument that people focus on one need at once, and will often consider many needs when making a decision.

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