The Maslow theory of motivation, based on a hierarchy of needs, was first presented in 1943. Since then it has become widely used on training courses, particularly those aimed at managers. However, there is little evidence to support key elements of the model. New research, based on Self Determination Theory, offers a fresh perspective and provides real insight into the drivers of intrinsic motivation – and also helps clarify the practical steps required to build commitment at work.
Is There a Hierarchy of Needs?
Maslow suggested that everyone has a basic set of needs and that these create an internal drive that pushes people to progress from one level to the next. He also proposed that these needs unfold over time, so the motivational focus changes as people mature. The model is based on five distinct need 'levels' that are usually shown as a pyramid, with the most significant at the top. It is assumed that needs must be satisfied at one level before it is possible to progress to the next.
At the base of the pyramid we have needs related to physical well-being and survival, including the need for food, water and sleep. Once these physiological needs have been met the focus changes to achieving a secure environment that is free of threat. It is assumed that this then leads on to development of interpersonal relationships that address the need to be accepted by others. This level is associated with love and social needs, which provide the platform for development of the individual's abilities and strengthening of self-esteem. Finally, at the apex of the pyramid, is Self Actualization, which represents the level at which individual is able to express their full potential.
The model also assumes that if a problem occurs at a 'lower' level, the individual will revert to that level until the issue is resolved. However, this perspective takes little account of people's subjective perception of events, or their expectations about the value of outcomes. A moment's reflection on this point reminds us that individuals will risk everything if the outcome is worth pursuing.
What Are the Real Foundations of Motivation?
New research, particularly that relating to Self Determination Theory (SDT) raises serious questions about the validity of the Maslow model. Whilst it is true that people have survival needs, relating to food and shelter, these are best viewed as 'minimal requirements' for healthy functioning. Human beings create their own sense of meaning, and this is anchored in a social context. Building on this observation, SDT identifies three core needs relating to Competence, Autonomy and 'Relatedness' (ie positive relationships with others) that are central to psychological well-being. Satisfying these needs creates the 'inner security' and resilience that enables people to deal with setbacks and develop as a person. However, we also know that unresolved issues can have long-lasting consequences.
Referring to the latest research, it becomes apparent that concern for Competence, Autonomy and Relatedness starts at a very early age. There is survival value is developing skills that create a sense of mastery and control over the environment. This is evident, for example, in very young children, who quickly acquire new skills and then seek a degree of autonomy (ie personal control and discretion over activities). However, they are also totally dependent on their parents and seek their approval, a process that then extends to development of wider social relationships. The need to identify and belong to different groups also contributes to a sense of identity and feelings of relatedness. The same process continues through life, and can be enhanced by awareness of personal strengths and how these can be applied through Purposeful Activity.
The New Motivational Pyramid
At the base of the updated 'pyramid of needs' we have the three core needs associated with Competence, Autonomy and Relatedness. Above this we have Secondary Needs linked to motivational factors that are more person-specific. These include the need for Power, Achievement, Independence and Affiliation. They provide additional energy that supports Patterns of Behavior that may become Personal Strengths that are also valued by relevant reference groups. It is not necessary to please everyone: we only need to meet the expectations of our reference group. However, a degree of Self-Awareness and Self-Regulation is required to ensure that Strengths are used effectively and channeled into Purposeful Activity.
Potential problems can occur if the three core needs of Competence, Autonomy and Relatedness are not satisfied. Dysfunctional behavior can easily result, which may be triggered by underlying insecurity, desire for control, and difficulty in relating to others. When self-esteem is fragile the individual may rely on external 'props' to bolster their sense of identity, but these can easily be undermined. The need for recognition and control, for example, may result in a pattern of behavior driven by ambition, personal power and financial reward. Early exposure to poverty can also run deep, sometimes driving self-interest and personal gain with no regard for the wider community.
The Motivational Pathway highlighted by the pyramid emphasizes that behavior must be seen in context. At the apex of the pyramid we have Purposeful Activity that is meaningful to the individual. However, it is also important that key areas of activity are well-regarded by Significant Others, even if this group is restricted to a few close associates. The Maslow model focuses on the individual and provides little explanation of the personal expectations, social context, and cultural norms that shape behavior. However, the collective perspective is important, and supports the pathway to self actualization. This is particularly relevant in the expression of the Power Motive. The pursuit of personal power is increasingly viewed as distasteful, of little collective benefit, whereas socialized power is associated with responsibility and a sense of duty.
Mindfulness and Development of Personal Strengths
As a potential antidote to dysfunctional behavior, the concept of 'mindfulness' is gaining the attention of psychologists. This involves increasing our awareness and attention of how we respond to situations, and contributes to Self Regulation (ie monitoring and control of thoughts and reactions). It also encourages the conscious use of Strengths, which serves to increase self-esteem when linked to Purposeful Activity. This process may be strengthened by Purposeful Conversations that may be linked to performance review or coaching.
The five steps contributing to the Motivational Pathway are summarized below.
Level 5: Purposeful Activity
Level 4: Mindfulness & Self-Regulation
Level 3: Use of Personal Strengths (to enhance Self-Efficacy)
Level 2: Secondary Needs that contribute to Patterns of Behavior
Level 1: Core Needs (Competence, Autonomy & Relatedness)
It is particularly important to the long-term success of organizations that they take care when assessing potential leaders and make sure that dysfunctional behavior is not rewarded. At the same time, it is evident that effective leaders can also directly influence and enhance employees' sense of Competence, Autonomy and Relatedness, which is central to the development of healthy organizations. It is not enough to focus on the personality of the leader; organizations must also create the enabling conditions that support personal development and relatedness. Use of a well-designed employee engagement survey is often an essential step in assessing the specific drivers of discretionary effort and commitment.
Helping people develop a sense of shared purpose and take ownership of activities are important themes and closely related to the principles of Authentic Leadership. The Motivational Pathway helps clarify key steps in the process.