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Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

By: Tracy Porter
Copyright 1997

As Human Resource professionals, we are in the unique position of determining how best to motivate and retain employees as well as simultaneously working to achieve our own goals. For this reason, we can gain a better understanding of the variables involved in employability and retention by taking a closer look at ourselves. It is very likely that many of the things that we look for in a career are exactly what others in the job market are seeking as well.

People tend to select certain roles for a variety of reasons to include aptitude, personal preference, qualifications, skills, experience and suitability. Accessibility to local transport is a major factor as at least one large company has been forced to relocate because it was not able to find staff willing to travel to out of the way places. Additionally, regardless how attractive the remuneration and benefits package, some people who are highly skilled and competent are simply not prepared to travel long distances or work exhaustively long hours in a job because they have commitments outside of work which are equally important to them. Staff benefits are primary factors of consideration because salaries, pensions, profit sharing and parking spaces can be quite emotive subjects, if not decisive factors which will sway a candidate’s decision to accept one position over another.

Recent years have had a shattering effect on a vast amount of British industries as many were forced to adopt transformative policies, some of which entailed wholesale redundancies, in order to survive and stay ahead of the competition. While many companies were able to endure the harsh economic climate which prevailed during the early years of this decade, dramatic changes have left their mark on the workforce at large because many organisational structures have become more flattened and formerly large companies now must acknowledge that they are only able to offer jobs and not careers to their staff. Because of the sweeping changes which have transpired in recent years, surveys have suggested that over a quarter of employees care little for money or status, and over a third of the workforce see no route to success in their current position. These attitudes therefore show a need to further explore what motivates a person stay with a company which may not necessarily give him the career opportunities he would seek in an ideal world.

In addition to the customary considerations employers make when recruiting the right person for the job, there are more subliminal elements of a psychological influence which must be taken into consideration in order to begin to truly understand why a person will persevere in a particular environment when others will move on to other endeavours.

There are several influential approaches relating to the psychology of human behaviour, and one such theory, the person-centred approach, was developed in the 1950’s by a group of American psychologists in an attempt to determine what motivates people and affects behaviour. The person-centred, or humanistic, approach to psychology is summarised by the following concepts:-

The concept of humanistic psychology maintains that humans are motivated uniquely by the need to expand their frontier and realise as much of their potential as possible. Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist who was a pioneer in humanistic counselling methods and coined the term ‘transpersonal psychology’ believed that the need to develop a person’s basic potential can take precedence over other motivators which may appear to be more evident. This striving to achieve one’s highest potential, or self-actualisation, is the ultimate goal which humans tend to strive for. During his work, Maslow developed a model commonly referred to as ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’, which sheds much light on what motivates people to seek out certain positions and therefore helps Human Resource professionals to determine how best to use these basic building blocks which encompass human nature.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a five tier model which explains human needs in the order in which they take precedence.

The first tier which is defined as physiological needs, relates to the need for survival, food, water and shelter, and is the most prominent need to shape man’s motivation. This need must first be met before a person can aspire to any other level of existence. Fortunately, in all except the most extreme of circumstances, most people will have met their survival needs and will be able to work on the higher order motivators, but if one should find himself in the situation where he does not have the basic essentials of food, water and shelter, then all other goals will go into remission until he has been able to acquire them. The first level in Maslow’s model is a clear factor in human survival and helps to explain why some people will stay in less than ideal situations because on some level they feel that to leave their environment would put their essentials for basic living in jeopardy.

After a person’s survival needs have been met, he will then tend to focus on achieving his safety needs, or security and protection from danger. In many ways, financial security is just as important as physical security because prosperity can shield those who have it from poverty and its unpleasant side effects. Western society is designed so that people will place a great deal of emphasis on security needs because ownership of property is a central theme which does not appear in aboriginal cultures which have traditionally seen themselves as caretakers, not owners, of the earth. Because a great deal of expense is involved to actually own property, few people are able to afford such a venture outright and must therefore seek financial assistance. With such a huge debt which is normally incurred whenever people endeavour to purchase a home, they will often chart out a career path which will give them financial security, often times at the expense of more creative aspirations which, although not necessarily financially rewarding, would definitely be self-actualising in nature. Each person has his own level of security, and this will determine which type of role he seeks. For example, a man who is responsible for providing for the material needs of his entire family will as general rule be attracted to different positions than the homemaker who merely wants a job which would enable her to meet people as well as bring in a little extra money.

After survival and safety, the third tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is social needs, which relates to friendships and acceptance by one’s peers. For some, it is very important to work in a place where there is a propensity to develop an active social life and it is for this reason that many firms have implemented social clubs to fulfil that desire. For others, the need to be accepted by their peers is so strong that they will go to great lengths to fit into the team, even if it means sacrificing some of their own individuality. Because it is important that teams work harmoniously, quite often employers will seek out those people who they feel will be able to integrate into a close knit environment because they recognise that more can be accomplished by a group of people than one person working on his own.

While there are many individuals who are quite happy to go to work just for the sake of earning enough money to live the life they desire outside of their place of business, there are others who would expect more from their careers. For these people, the penultimate tier in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is self respect and esteem, or the need for status and self confidence, is a primary factor in determining what motivates them to perform. These people usually aspire to high profile roles demand responsibility, such as management or executive positions which will give them the prestige they desire, and some have been know to accept a lower salary in return for a position which gives them the level of responsibility that they seek.

The fifth, or last tier in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is self-actualisation or the realisation of one’s potential. Because self-actualisation is such an intangible concept, there are two theories surrounding it. One school of thought is that we never actually achieve self-actualisation but are always striving to achieve our highest potential, while the second belief is that we can achieve self-actualisation which lasts only a short while because we will soon find another pinnacle to surmount. Those who strive to realise their potential tend to look for positions which allow them autonomy so that they can make an impact by creating something special or putting their ideas across in an important way.

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The above piece was inspired by a competition in a personnel magazine that I happened to pick up whilst working in the Human Resource Department. I wrote the article and submitted it to the magazine, and never heard from them again. I was initially taught about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs whilst in the United States Air Force, which was one of their most common management studies.