[Note to the english reader : this is the translation of the french Pyramide de Maslow, théorie des besoins (et autres foutaises), published in August 2010. ]
In the second half of the twentieth century, research about organizations shifted its focus from mechanistic explanations towards interactionism. An organization was not understood anymore as a single monolithical ensemble, but rather as a set of various links between several actors, who had each of them their own reasons to be there and take decisions.
Around 1940, research works took hold of the idea of motivation. Abraham Maslow took the question literally and launched a field study that ended up in the theory of needs, better known through its visual form of Maslow’s pyramid of needs.
It stressed the importance of personal views and wills, above or aside formal rules and procedures. It allowed also to develop a dynamic point of view of human relations as opposed to an idle shape dependant of external factors.
It is today one of the best known and most taught model of management, in the whole world.
However, the importance of this pyramid in evaluating behaviours is grossly exaggerated because later research works did not found a clue of any hierarchization of values in the interviews led by Maslow and his team. It is Maslow himself who put the values in a specific order, to finally conclude that there was a vertical hierarchy among them.
Furthermore, the scope of people interviewed in 1940 (white, middle-class, before WWII, in the United States) can not allow any generalization beyond this specific population, in time or space.
One can also put under questioning the model itself and especially its alleged universality, as it clearly involves a materialistic outlook on life, as it was generally the case in the United States pre-world war.
According to this model, it wouldn’t be possible to believe in God during disastrous times -like a tsunami, or impossible to achieve a good work with a mediocre salary. Inversely, a rewarding salary does not guarantee a strong motivation to work (i let you find the examples).
Last point, do our needs have a hierarchical structure ? Does having makes being less important ?
If it was the case the management practices would have never been modified since Ford’s in the XIXth century : pay more to motivate more.
As early as 1959, the work of Frederick Herzberg will have the effect of a torpedo under Maslow’s floatation line. But according to Maslow’s popularity it seems like many, many teachers in the field of management have never read a professional book written since 1959.
Repeat after me : the Hierarchy of Needs is not a valid theoretical model nor is it an operational management tool.
Then why is it still taught as a reference ?
One have to reckon that this theory is extremely simple to teach and extremely intuitive. Students in their first college year can fully understand it.
In the context of adults’ training, like in MBAs or in business schools, you are also almost guaranteed that noone will argue against it and -for example- raise the issue of Herzberg’s bifactorial theory.
To make a long story short : Maslow is easily taught and easily learned and that’s all.
It’s why we still find him as a prominent scientific validation in many « change management » plans, in Human Resources or in Organization.
Consulting companies are especially avid consumers of simplistic and intuitive theories like this because, first, the consultants themselves learned it in college or in the aforementioned MBAs or business schools and, second, by using the Hierarchy of Needs they won’t call into question the dominant order (who pays them, by the way).
Yet, I am always astonished by the incompetence level that pushes to use Maslow as a foil for serious (ie: unquestionable) thinking, when it’s been 50 years now that the use of the Hierarchy of Needs is a clear sign of professional ignorance within the people who keep their own skills up to date.
For another example of management nonsense, please refer (in french) to my other post on the dual brain theory, left and right.