Tag Archives: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

What People Want

Cliff-hanging

What motivates people?

There are several models of behaviour that try to explain what drives people to do things. I will discuss 3 models briefly.  Namely they are the Pleasure-Pain Principle, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the Whole Person Paradigm.

The Pleasure-Pain Principle

The Pleasure-Pain Principle explains behaviour simply as a response to perceived  pain or pleasure. Depending on the nature of the stimulus, the resulting behaviour will be motivated by either the desire to get pleasure (the equivalent of reward) or compulsion to avoid pain (the equivalent of punishment). The human brain, on an instinctive level, is hot-wired to respond automatically to situations in the environment that would be associated with reward or punishment, most especially punishment. The fight or flight response is triggered within split seconds of sensing a threat, even before the person becomes consciously aware of that threat. It is an evolutionary feature that ensures survival.

This of course, is an oversimplification of man’s motives, and it cannot really explain complex behaviours that tend to defy this predisposition, like when a person risks his life to save a child with whom he has no ties or a person who intentionally endures immense physical strain to heighten spirituality or to gain fame. Behaviours like these do not quite fit the model. On these occasions the pain that a person wilfully endures tends to contradict the instinct to avoid pain or seek pleasure. When a person acts instinctively, his behaviour will inevitable comply with this principle, however the person can override this tendency by exercising choice, that is, he can choose to act otherwise.  This too, is an evolutionary feature that allows a human to consciously override an instinctive tendency when it is no longer appropriate.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow came up with his own theory, that human needs follow a hierarchy. In this theory a person’s needs are expressed in levels. See diagram below.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the most basic needs are the physical and biological needs  (at the bottom), followed by the need for safety. Above that is belongingness and love, then esteem and finally, the highest human need is for self-actualization. This model suggests that If a lower need is not yet met, then higher needs will not motivate.

This means that if a person has not yet completely met his very basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter, he will be motivated only by whatever meet his current needs, which is in this case, are the biological and physical needs. The higher needs for Safety, belongingness and love, esteem and self-actualization will not motivate him at this point, not unless his basic needs are first met. And as each level of his need is met, the higher unmet need becomes a strong motivator and the needs that have already been met will become a much weaker source motivation.

This appears to be a slightly more accurate model of human motivation. When a person lacks his most basic needs, he would tend to be oblivious to all his other higher needs, however as we move up the ladder of needs, the hierarchy it would seem, begins to blur and the actual progression doesn’t always follow the proposed order. People do seek out these higher needs but not always in the manner predicted by this model.

The Whole Person Model

Stephen Covey inEffectiveness to Greatness, discusses a different motivation paradigm, the ‘Whole Person Model‘. Covey does not claim this concept to be his own, but rather considers the whole person model as the application of timeless principles that have remained unchanged throughout time.  This by far to me, has been the most solid model of motivation that I have studied. his book the 8th Habit From 

The Whole Person Model
The Whole Person Model

The whole person model considers all aspects of a person as an integral part of the whole. A person’s physical (his body), mental (his mind), social (his heart) and spiritual (his spirit) aspects must all be given equal importance because when one part is neglected, the person’s life becomes unbalanced and he would suffer as a result of the imbalance. In this model, human motivation can be classified as one of four, to live, to love, to learn and to leave a legacy.

A person needs to sustain his body, that is, he needs to eat right, exercise and get enough sleep (physical). He will also need to love and be loved; to sustain sound and meaningful relationships with his family, friends and possibly a life partner (social). These 2 needs are very powerful and urgent. Their neglect will impact a person’s life almost immediately, which is why many people focus almost entirely on these two needs.  Some people resort to quick fixes like fast food meals to gratify hunger, caffeine overload or drugs to fight sleepiness or exhaustion. A person might also resort to illicit affairs or one night stands to soothe the sting of domestic turbulence or avoid unbearable loneliness. Quick fixes allow a person to go on with his life for some time without having to fully address the need.

The need to keep learning and mastering a skill is also a very fundamental need for people (mental), although often neglected. Very few people are even aware of this need because it is less urgent than the first two, and yet we all know the deep and profound satisfaction whenever we have mastered a skill or discipline. Video games are so popular and  addicting because with every level-up the need for mastery is satisfied and it leaves a person feeling ecstatic, however superficially. Often times we get by through petty indulgence but in time we do feel the impact of neglecting this need.

Leaving a legacy, or having a meaningful purpose for one’s life is yet another need that is often neglected. For the most part, spending life in routine work happens without much thought. Even if a job fails to engage a person’s passions or doesn’t provide the person with opportunities for growth, he can still be sufficiently occupied and sometimes even exhausted by the activities that the job requires of him.

In the absence on any meaningful purpose, crossing out items from the daily to-do’s list sometimes poses purpose for living. We can keep this up for a fairly long time without any apparent consequence, however being deprived of a meaningful purpose for so long will take its toll, often times reaching crisis proportions. At that point it will need to be addressed urgently.

Mid-life is payback time.

Sometimes, because of culture or circumstance, a person might neglect one or more of these aspect, and this would inevitably result in a person experiencing some form impairment . Over time this would result in a deterioration of the person as a whole. Unless a person continually addresses all his needs without neglecting any, he will not be able to sustain his well-being.

Enter mid-life. By the time we reach 40 years of age (give or take a few years) any of our needs that we may have neglected in our life thus far, begins to poke at us. Many find that at around 40 they feel stricken with panic or depression upon realizing that half of their life is gone and they have nothing to show for it. If a person neglected his health, this would be the period in one’s life where their doctor would diagnose lifestyle illnesses like hypertension, diabetes or worse.

For instance, a person who spends all his time working, trying to build wealth while neglecting to nurture the relationship he has with his family, finds that his marriage and family life is strained or broken. Or if a person fails to exercise or eat properly, his health will eventually begin to suffer. A person who neglects his need to learn, will find that he has stopped advancing in his career and all his skill have become obsolete. Eventually the void created by chronic neglect will cause so much discomfort, that the person will be compelled to focus on them or risk suffering painful loss if that has not already happened. The individual has to achieve balance in all the areas of his life. When he fails to do this he will experience distress and a deep sense of lack.

On the other hand, when a person manages to give ample attention to all of these parts of himself, he finds the most fulfilment in life. His health is good, his relationships are rewarding and his career is progressive and prosperous. He is at peace with himself and enjoys his life fully. You will also find this person fully engaged in purposeful service. These are the indicators that life is in balance. One cannot really put one part aside while he develops the other. All parts have to be developed simultaneously otherwise growth and well-being cannot be sustained.

What employers (and parents) absolutely need to know

Employers and parents need to understand this principle. Many focus on a single part of the whole person and disregard everything else.  An employer might pay their people handsomely, promoting them when they keep long hours and work through holidays and weekends. And this might actually translate into great productivity, but only for a short time. Some may focus only on making profits and this too might achieve positive results but it will only be short-lived. After some time, focusing only on only one aspect, the employer will find that the system begins to cave in on itself.  The workaholics burn out. And a company’s single-minded focus on profits would inadvertently give rise to many self-defeating practices in the workplace.

An interesting study shown in the video below,  illustrates this concept quite perfectly. It shows time and again, that human motivation is complex yet organized around the basic principles of the whole person model. People will seek to satisfy all the parts of their being, once their basic needs have been fulfilled. When people cannot fulfil all their needs completely at work, they will seek to fulfil it elsewhere. If they don’t, something breaks down.

Our general assumptions of what really motivate people are flawed.  The ‘Great Jackass Theory of Motivation’ doesn’t really work. You cannot simply use the ‘carrot and stick’ (reward and punishment) method to manage people even children. At best, this method can get compliance, no more. For many, the reward and punishment system is demeaning, because it fails to recognize that people can and will make impeccable choices when given trust, authority and a clear purpose, without having to be bribed or threatened.

Getting people to do their best work paradoxically requires less external rewards than employers and parents previously assumed. Often times, the quickest way to inspire excellence from anyone is to simply provide them with a clear direction and then get out of their way.

 RSA Animate – Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us

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