By James McCusker
Abraham Maslov published his famous research paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” in 1943, the same year that the federal government introduced tax withholding from pay checks. The average new house then cost $3,600 which was, at the time, about 1.6 times the average worker’s annual wages.
It was a long time ago but what he wrote then is still important today, especially to anyone who is a leader — in business or any other dimension of human activity.
At the center of Maslov’s theory is a concept he called the “hierarchy of needs.” Often portrayed as a triangle, the hierarchy of needs divides human needs into five sets of priorities, each supporting the next level until the apex is reached.
The first group, the base of the triangle, contains the “physiological needs,” such as air to breathe, water, food, shelter, sex and sleep. Once those needs are met, humans next need things that Maslov assembled into a group he called “security.” It includes things like security of one’s body, family, employment, health and property.
The remaining groups that complete the triangle are “esteem,” “love and belonging,” and at the apex, in Maslov’s unfortunate term, “self actualization,” which really means making the most of our capabilities.
Maslov’s work has received some criticism over the years from research psychologists. For most of us who aren’t psychology professionals, though, his work remains valuable.
His hierarchy of needs, like so many genuine insights, almost seems to be a restatement of the obvious … and in a sense it is. As Galileo wrote, “All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.”
Maslov’s restatement, though, made it especially valuable to those who manage workplaces and guide large and small organizations.
One of the things that management should always consider when trying to motivate and guide people to “be all that they can be” is that it’s at the apex of people’s needs. If a person’s other needs — physiological, security, etc. — aren’t being met, it will be very difficult to get them to concentrate for long on higher-level actions. That is why the effectiveness of motivational speeches is usually less than 24 hours.
Our needs can be shifted by outside events. It is amazing how quickly a boat’s overturning, or an encounter with a large bear, can focus our attention on needs like security and survival. Even a power outage can quickly shift our priorities to those that the pioneers would recognize.
Encounters with bears or large waves are not routine hazards in most American workplaces, but in recent times have brought more enduring economic uncertainty than the previous two generations of workers and managers had to contend with.
Maslov’s elements that he grouped as “security” included three that most of us have concerns about: employment, health and property. Even though our economy is slowly improving, those concerns remain all too real for many.
To motivate people in today’s workplace, then, managers have to address these security concerns, as well as some that workers are probably not as keenly aware of. The overall goal is to create a workplace that is “an island of sanity” in a world that has, for a while at least, abandoned optimism and embraced uncertainty, complexity and anxiety.
The best single thing that managers and CEOs can do to meet workers’ needs for employment security is to create a sense of teamwork — that, “we’re all in this together.” A single business manager or CEO cannot fix the U.S. or the world economy, but what he or she can do is let workers know that they are surrounded by people who are all on the same team, the same side. This won’t make the need go away, but it will reduce its intensity and its ability to undermine our resolve.
Creating that kind of teamwork requires a level of management honesty that will be new to many workplaces. It is not necessary to make stuff up or to spout feel-goodisms from Scarlett O’Hara or copied down from motivational posters. What is necessary is conveying the top manager’s faith in the company and the people in it. This should be reinforced frequently with honest reports on how the company is doing, how it is trying to meet workers’ needs, especially in health care, and what steps are being taken to compete and prosper in today’s changing business environment.
These uncertain times have made it easy for a lot of companies to focus on things other than their workers, but the price of this is lowered productivity and, later, unnecessary turnover.
Fighting economic uncertainty is never easy, but you stand a much better chance of winning with a team.
Editor’s note: Physical and cyber-security and suggestions for addressing these security needs will be the subject of a forthcoming column.
James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and small-business consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.