Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was first published in 1943. We’ve all heard of it and most of us have worked with it in one way or another in school or work. Maslow’s approach to human motivation was a precursor to the human potential movement of the 1960s, which is largely responsible for the thinking in today’s HR departments. Indeed, Maslow’s hierarchy is still widely taught and utilized as a foundation for motivational strategies in organizations. However, it’s time to put it to rest.
As a reminder, the hierarchy consists of the following needs (with the highest level needs at the top of the list):
There is little scientific evidence, though, that there is a fixed hierarchy in which lower level needs must be met before higher level needs can be pursued. Others (Hofstede, 1984, in an analysis of Haire, Ghiselli, & Porter, 1966) have criticized the hierarchy in finding that the ordering of the needs from least to most important is culturally based, depending in part on whether that culture is individualistic or collectivistic in nature. Some cultures are more motivated by self interests and development of self whereas other cultures value the needs of community over self.
The implications for leaders in various cultures are significant as they consider the unspoken, underlying concerns their employees carry with them on a daily basis. The implications for leaders in culturally diverse workplaces are perhaps even more significant. There is a great challenge in leading a group of people who are motivated by differing, even conflicting, needs.
Another approach, supported by recent research from Dr.s Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, is self-determination theory (SDT). The foundation of SDT is that people have three innate needs:
- To be competent and experience mastery
- To relate to others and be connected
- To have autonomy and control over the direction of your life
A brief examination of this list reveals potential application in the work setting. However, similar to criticism of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we could argue that the desire to relate to others and have personal autonomy varies depending on the cultural context. In some cultures, e.g. South Korea, social connectedness is valued over individualism, whereas in others, e.g. the United States, individualism is valued over connectedness.
We can also look at this on a generational dimension. Millennials have a high degree of need for social connection compared to baby boomers. In either case, it is clear that people, regardless of their cultural training or generational identity, do have a desire to connect with others.
What I’ve told you so far is that the most commonly cited model (by far) of human motivation, Maslow’s approach, has pretty significant holes in it. I’ve also told you that another approach that has more robust research support, self-determination theory, also has holes in it. To be fair, both offer value. They can help explain some aspects of the human experience, but not all. They are theories, not laws.
I’m going to boldly offer a different approach to human motivation—one that I believe addresses motivation on a much more practical level in a much more reliable manner.
People have two basic needs:
Significance is our desire to be respected, accepted, loved, and connected. It is the primary focus of our day-to-day activity. In a healthy person, the need for significance is expressed in a strong work ethic and service to others at home, work, church, and community. In unhealthy people, the need for significance is pursued through manipulation and distortion of facts, relationships, and situations. (Of course, this is on a continuum and no one is purely healthy or unhealthy all the time in their pursuit of significance.)
What does God say about the need for significance? On the one hand He said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26), and that man is worth more than the birds of the air and the flowers of the field (Matthew 6:26). On the other hand He also said that we should “regard one another as more important than [ourselves]” (Philippians 2:3) and “You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (I Peter 5:5).
In pursuing significance, there is an important balance between recognizing the inherent value of human life, your own life, and simultaneously showing honor and respect to others above self.
This balance leads to significance that will have greater value in eternity than in the present, which is directly connected to the second human need, hope.
Hope is our desire to know that the future holds something greater; to know that our present physical, emotional, and spiritual hurts will be forever healed. Whereas significance focuses on today’s needs, hope looks to the future. Hope for ourselves is the need to know that the ideals we hold most dear today will be realized tomorrow. Hope for others is the need to know that those we love will realize the same. Positive pursuits of hope result in efforts to learn and grow. In groups, the pursuit of hope results in communities that care for one another and teach truths that strengthen that community. Destructive pursuits of hope occur when people attempt to force their ideals into reality and craft their own future, as if they were God.
It is most reassuring that God is our chief proponent and source of hope. (Any other source will fail.) The stories of Moses, Joseph, and Esther all teach us that our hope is in God and that God gives us reason to hope for the future. The Bible’s grand narrative is the promise of eternal life for those who put their faith in Christ. (Not sure what that means? Drop me a note, or click here.)
The Leader’s Impact on Significance and Hope at Work
What does this mean in the work place? How are significance and hope operationalized as motivational strategies? How do you help your employees feel significant today? How do you help them have hope for the future?
I’m not going to address that question right now. What you, the leader, need to examine first is your personal values. Do your actual work values support the needs of significance and hope? Or, do they undermine them in any way? (What I mean by actual values is the values that guide your leadership on a daily basis, not the values you desire to lead by. If you’re not sure what your actual values are, ask five people to tell you (anonymously if needed) what’s most important to you as a leader.)
It’s not easy to figure out whether your actual values support significance and hope, but you need time to figure that out. Once you have a solid understanding of your actual leadership values, you’ll have a better understanding of whether significance and hope have a potential home in your workplace.
We’ll deal with that in the future, but in the meantime, please let me know your thoughts as you process them.
Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.
Photo “Abraham Maslow’s Grave” by Drewbonics. Available at Flickr.com.
Hofstede, G. (1984). “The Cultural Relativity of the Quality of Life Concept.” The Academy of Management Review. doi: 10.5465/AMR.1984.4279653