Is It Time to Rethink Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

Hierarchy Of NeedsMost human resource and organizational development professionals are familiar with Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  In his 1954 book, Motivation and Personality, Maslow’s proposed that people are motivated by satisfying lower-level needs such as food, water, shelter, and security, before they can move on to being motivated by higher-level needs such as self-actualization.

In a new article for Harvard Business Review Online, What Maslow’s Hierarchy Won’t Tell You About Motivation, Blanchard author Susan Fowler suggests that despite the popularity of Maslow’s model it might be time to take a second look at the idea of a needs hierarchy.

In conducting research for her new book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does, Fowler found that instead of a hierarchy, contemporary science points to three universal psychological needs common to all people at all times:  autonomy, relatedness, and competence.  This research would suggest that leaders need to address these three psychological needs early and often instead of delaying them for a future time.  For example:

Autonomy is a person’s need to perceive that they have choices, that what they are doing is of their own volition, and that they are the source of their own actions.  Fowler explains that the way leaders frame information and situations either promotes the likelihood that a person will perceive autonomy or undermines it. To promote autonomy Fowler recommends that leaders:

  • Frame goals and timelines as essential information to assure a person’s success, rather than as dictates or ways to hold people accountable.
  • Refrain from incentivizing people through competitions and games.
  • Don’t apply pressure to perform. Sustained peak performance is a result of people acting because they choose to — not because they feel they have to.

Relatedness is a person’s need to care about and be cared about by others, to feel connected to others without concerns about ulterior motives, and to feel that they are contributing to something greater than themselves. Fowler shares that leaders have a great opportunity to help people derive meaning from their work and deepen relatedness by:

  • Validating the exploration of feelings in the workplace and being willing to ask people how they feel about an assigned project or goal and listening to their response.
  • Taking time to facilitate the development of people’s values at work — and then helping them align those values with their goals.
  • Connecting people’s work to a noble purpose.

Competence is a person’s need to feel effective at meeting every-day challenges and opportunities, demonstrating skill over time, and feeling a sense of growth and flourishing. Fowler shares that leaders can rekindle people’s desire to grow, learn, and develop competence by:

  • Making resources available for learning. What message does it send about values for learning and developing competence when training budgets are the first casualty of economic cutbacks?
  • Setting learning goals — not just the traditional results-oriented and outcome goals.
  • At the end of each day, instead of asking, “What did you achieve today?” ask “What did you learn today? How did you grow today in ways that will help you and others tomorrow?”

The exciting message to leaders is that when the three basic psychological needs are satisfied in the workplace, people experience the day-to-day high-quality motivation that fuels employee work passion — and all the inherent benefits that come from actively engaged individuals at work.

To learn more about Fowler’s research, read her entire article at  Be sure to check out—and join the lively conversation—taking place with fellow leadership development peers!

14 thoughts on “Is It Time to Rethink Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

  1. Not sure the importance of autonomy, relatedness, and competence negates Maslow. Maslow is an on-the-average theory. It is not about where any particular person is on the hierarchy. It is about having programs that assist everyone regardless of where they are on the hierarchy. And the hierarchy is not “fixed” for all people. There are also conditions Maslow laid out for the hierarchy to work, such as social justice. I rarely see the hierarchy represented as Maslow stated. In the image above, social needs should be replaced with “love and belongingess” needs. Maslow said we need to love and to be loved. As to motivating employees, I favor Vroom’s expectancy theory:

  2. It’s great to see these points being made. Our understanding of motivation in the workplace has moved forward enormously over the last few years. I particularly like the words of caution regarding the “gamification” of the workplace.

    I’m sure Susan Fowler’s new book will be a worthy companion to the contributions from authors such as Daniel Pink, Adrian Gostick/Chester Elton and Kevin Kruse.


    David Pethick

    • Hi David–thanks for your comments and for highlighting the words of caution around “gamification” in the workplace. It is certainly a way to keep training and other work initiatives fun and interesting, we just have to be careful that it doesn’t take the place of deeper purposes at work. Thanks for joining in the conversation!

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  5. Autonomy Relatedness Competence: Interesting Model to review Maslow. David Rock’s SCARF Model (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness,Fairness) is another view, derived from findings on the Brain that I studied in NeuroLeadrship. Both models are useful in day-to-day Leadership, Governance and Management challenges – without mentioning family ones. Thank you

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