Reinventing the Assumption on Human Motivation

Human Needs


We overlook how much in life is about steps. There isn't a neat division between them, either. The development of one competency, skill, or the attainment of an achievement can be concurrent. You move up a step, and then review the previous one again.

Hierarchies don't reveal nuance. Needs go beyond the physical and psychological. To make a person, you have intellectual and spiritual dimensions as well. I've been reflecting about these past two years and how we don't seem to see light at the end of the tunnel.

But it's there nonetheless.


Challenging the premise

The first thing is to admit what we assume about knowledge is not so. All knowledge is fluid. Human evolution is proof of that.

It started with a paper in 1943. Abraham Maslow published “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review.  With the publication, Maslow won the fame lottery for an idea he called Hierarchy of Needs. Which forever became how we look at human motivation.

Funny how right place, right time create this halo effect, isn't it?

More than a decade later, he refined his ideas into Motivation and Personality. As it often happens, the theory was not original. Others before and during his time were discussing similar ideas on human development. As models go, this one proved quite popular.

Because it explains psychology and behavior, marketers and management consultants use it in their work, crediting Maslow. However, in 2016 Todd Bridgman and Stephen Cummings, management professors at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, started looking into Maslow's work.

They invited then retired professor John Ballard to join them in their quest. If Maslow didn't talk about a pyramid, as it didn't appear mentioned anywhere, who did? And, more interesting, why question a framework adopted so broadly all over the world?

Because it's inaccurate.

This model adopted broadly by educational institutions, businesses, and experts, is not right. For one, Maslow specified that you don't need to satisfy all needs at one level to move to the next. Second, when you lose nuance, you lose the human experience.

But most of all, because when you start with false assumptions, your training and education are built on sand. Yet, you need bedrock to sustain development of full-fledged capabilities. Maslow's paper and work contained nuances that the elaboration by management consultants Douglas McGregor (MIT Sloan,) and Keith Davis (1957) missed.

The visual representation as a pyramid was by consulting psychologist Charles McDermid (1960). He inserted it in an article titled “How Money Motivates Man.” You can generate maximum motivation at the lowest cost, he argued. Hence, the pyramid scheme was born. How fitting. 


The source is better than the sum of its parts

This is exactly why it's a good idea to go to the source. Whenever possible, read the reference material. Because what did Maslow say? He premised that certain preconditions where necessary for motivation to emerge from needs (1943, p. 383):

“freedom to speak,
freedom to do what one wishes so long as no harm is done to others, 
freedom to express one’s self,
freedom to investigate and seek for information,
freedom to defend one’s self,
orderliness in the group”

When he talked about human potential, he didn't focus on power and money.

His work is due for an upgrade to the context , language, and possibilities of our time. There's  relationship to community in Maslow's work as well. And we ought to make one reference to society as well. Because it flows from community through culture.


Implications for business

Companies and brands that talk community should not kid themselves: most communities are audiences. A community is a place where people want to connect with each other based on common interests. Your point of view and take on the world is an invitation, not the point or final destination.

Businesses immersed in a context full of money thinking have a hard time grasping this simple concept. But it gets harder when society is filled with the very same ideas. Because a constant diet of conflict and controversy has reprogrammed collective thought.

It's hard to pull together fragmented communities caused by fragmented thought and action.

“Businesses, social services, education, and health care each live within their own worlds,” says Petr Block.

“The same is true of individual citizens, who long for connection but end up being marginalized, their gifts overlooked, their potential contributions lost. What keeps this from changing is that we are trapped in an old and tired conversation about who we are. If this narrative does not shift, we will never truly create a common future and work toward it together.”

And so it is an old and tired narrative. Isn't it time to retire it? I am and I will even more in the year to come. Through the power of language in my case.


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