Abraham Maslow was born in New York in 1908 to Russian Jewish parents who’d fled persecution in their homeland. They were disappointed by young Maslow’s choice to study psychology rather than law; but he was incredibly successful in his lifetime and had a lasting impact on his field.
Known as ‘the father of Humanistic Psychology’, his work was centred on the premise that every person seeks to reach their full potential or a state of ‘self-actualisation’. His theories proposed that those who achieved harmony with themselves and their surroundings, would be able to enjoy more happiness and fulfilment in their day-to-day lives.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was outlined in 1943 as part of a paper called ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’. Often illustrated as a pyramid (although never by Maslow himself), it depicts the basic necessities a person must have before they can move towards a ‘higher’ stage of concerns and reach self-actualisation. From the base of the pyramid to the top, the needs are:
Physiological: food, water, warmth and rest.
Safety: personal and financial security, health and wellbeing.
Social belonging: friendship, kinship and intimacy.
Esteem: achievement, independence, respect and status.
Self-actualisation: the realisation of personal potential through growth experiences.
Although Maslow’s assertion that the basic needs need to be met first has since been debunked, his hierarchy laid the foundation for future research and widely-accepted theories such as Clayton Alderfer’s ERG Theory.
Maslow’s theory sparked the rise of Humanistic Psychology – he was (somewhat) preaching that humans do wish to be the very best versions of themselves, but that they rely on basic needs to achieve their ultimate goals. In doing so, his theory opposed the existing schools of thought which focused on problematic behaviours – Behaviourists and Psychoanalysts.
Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to employee engagement
The potential for applying Maslow’s theory to employee motivation was quickly recognised. In 1960 Douglas McGregor’s book The Human Side of Enterprise advocated a move away from the traditional ‘transactional’ approach to employee engagement, simply based on offering money for the completion of tasks. Instead, he pitched a ‘relational’ approach which addressed many of the human needs identified by Maslow, through employer-led support and opportunity. In return, he proposed, businesses would get more loyalty and hard work from their staff. (Our own research has also shown a lack of employer-led support is one of the main reasons why employees quit). The book flew off the shelves, became a bestseller and changed the way we approach management today.
Understanding Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as engagement ‘drivers’
Maslow’s contributions in humanistic psychology has meant management has progressively become more holistic and employee focused. Let’s take the ‘Social Belonging’ need for example – the importance of friendships at work and organisational fit are no longer just ‘nice to haves’ but instead recognised drivers of engagement and staff retention. Likewise, companies are increasingly focusing on ‘Esteem’, looking at it through the lens of Accomplishment by providing staff with the support they need to feel competent, and Recognition by praising exceptional performance.
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