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Debunking the pyramid Ray S. Jones Debunking the Pyramid: On Not Overstating Maslows Hierarchy of Needs Ray S.


Over a number of years during class room discussions on the topic of motivation, inevitably a student offers into evidence Maslows Hierarchy of Needs. This evidence is usually offered as a demonstration of mans determined character in contact with natures implacable willman struggles to overcome the basic needs to live so that he may achieve the pleasures of love, esteem, and self-actualization, despites the harsh realities of a world requiring greater and greater effort from man. I usually use this as an opportunity to explore the effects of Theory X on motivation, and gently (I hope) disabuse my students of a James Fenimore Cooper notion of a heroic man versus nature in the organization. It is also an opportunity to discuss Frederick Herzbergs motivation ideas, which do draw from Abraham Maslows work (Whittington & Evans, 2005). So, in a sense no teachable moment is lost, nonetheless, I have remained troubled by the recurring references to Maslows hierarchy of needs because, as I have repeatedly discovered, the true point of Maslows work is seldom found in the learned repertoire of my students. Thus, I am concerned that across our discipline we have incorrectly portrayed what Abraham Maslow was trying to teach us. Recently I returned to the textbooks that are being used in graduate and undergraduate business courses for Organizational Behavior to review the content on Maslows hierarchy of needs. Some few were better than others, but like most texts, they distill truth to word-bites for the masses. I present the following which is an example of a particularly misleading treatment of Maslow: In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow published his now famous need hierarchy theory of motivation. Although the theory was based on his clinical observation of a few neurotic individuals, it has subsequently been used to explain the entire spectrum of human behavior (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2007, p. 237). This statement is incorrect on two counts. First, Maslow was an experimental psychologist who studied under Edward Thorndike, and was well versed in the scientific method. During the 1930s he studied primates and the sexual behaviors of women undergraduates, producing papers on both topics and referring to both areas in a number of his works (see Nicholson, 2001, for a discussion). His early study is somewhat paradoxical in more ways than the obvious. There are a number of articles that take issue with his treatment of gender in his theories (Coy & Kovaks-Long, 2005; Cullen & Cotell, 2002; Nicholson, 2001). Nevertheless, Maslow is recognized as a humanist theorist for his perspectives on the hopefulness of the human condition. Factually, Maslows theory of needs was not solely based on his clinical observation of a few neurotic patients. His primate work, his work with women undergraduates, and his strong humanistic perspectives contributed to this early statement of theory. Second, the text book authors do Maslow a great discredit by failing to mention the work on his theory of personality that continued beyond the publishing of the 1943 paper on needs. Regrettably, some in the Organizational Behavior field have become stuck in 1943, which is where these authors present a grievous error. The hierarchy of needs never attempted to explain the entire spectrum of human behavior as Kreitner and Kinicki (2007, p. 237) state that it has subsequently been used to explain the entire

Debunking the pyramid Ray S. Jones

spectrum of human behavior. As Payne (2000, pp. 219-220) wrote, Maslow set out to research and understand people who were abnormally normal, i.e. super healthy in a psychological sense. He sought out people who were achieving a lot, were happy with themselves and their lives, and who were fully functioning. . .Maslow observed that many people spend their lives struggling to satisfy the lower order needs and never get the opportunity to satisfy their higher order needs for self-esteem and self-actualisation. This intent is reflected in Maslows beliefs that self-actualization is a process that is not contained in a bounded hierarchy as he explains in later writings (1971). I argue that this intent was apparent in his 1943 article, and was the thread that bound his ideas throughout his life. Indeed, Hoffman (1999) suggests such in his biography of Maslow. Therefore, the crux of the issue is that textbook authors and mangers who find the simplicity of the hierarchy of needs attractive and fail to understand the context in which it was offered, use and cite something which in fact is non-existent. Maslow (1943, p. 2) made the tenuousness of his objective perfectly clear when he wrote The present theory then must be considered to be a suggested program or framework for future research and must stand or fall, not so much on facts available or evidence presented, as upon researches to be done, researches suggested perhaps, by the questions raised in this paper. Kreitner and Kinicki (2007) perpetuate the error by not disabusing it with the considerable evidence that Maslows hierarchy was not intended as encompassing theory. The hierarchy of needs was never theory in the Kuhnian sense, but a propositional idea, despite the title of the paper. One must read the paper to understand this point. That some did use the hierarchy as a model for human behavior is not surprising, many fads have come and gone in business. It is our responsibility as scholars to see through these. Maslows hierarchy is not behavioral; he was a humanist, opposed to Skinners obsession with behavior. Maslow spent his theoretical life trying to demonstrate the hopefulness of mans potential. Yet he is taken out of context by some organizational behaviorists. Consider the following quote: The needs that are usually taken as the starting point for motivation theory are the so-called physiological drives. . .Homeostasis refers to the body's automatic efforts to maintain a constant, normal state of the blood stream. . .it seems impossible as well as useless to make any list of fundamental physiological needs for they can come to almost any number one might wish. . .they are relatively independent of each other, of other motivations. . .the person who thinks he is hungry may actually be seeking more for comfort. . .or dependence[but] the man who is extremely and dangerously hungry, no other interests exist but food. (Maslow, 1943, p. 2-3). In this quote, Maslow does state that a man extremely and dangerously hungry is obsessed with food. Yet, absent the dangerously hungry condition, there is considerable room for hunger to be misinterpreted by the observer. Furthermore, as Maslow observed [e]mergency conditions are, almost by definition, rare in the normally functioning peaceful society (1943, p. 4).

Debunking the pyramid Ray S. Jones

Deprivation of food triggers hunger, but we must consider Maslows (1943, p. 4) words that gratification becomes as important a concept as deprivation in motivation theory. Thus, people are free to pursue more socially oriented goals. Maslow considered freedom to pursue goals a desirable end event as opposed to a condition of existence. All people in our society (with a few pathological exceptions) have a need or desire for a stable, firmly based, (usually) high evaluation of themselves, for self-respect, or self-esteem, and for the esteem of others. (Maslow, 1943, p. 7). Here, Maslow hypothesizes that when deprived of self-esteem gratification the individual [suffers] feelings of inferiority, of weakness and of helplessness. These feelings in turn give rise to either basic discouragement or else compensatory or neurotic trends. (Maslow, 1943, p. 7). This hypothesis is common within humanistic psychology, but has been ignored by the hierarchical needs theorists who have instead focused on the belief that failure to gratify the esteem needs will stall an individual and prevent movement into self actualization. This misses a key element of Maslows idea. Even if all these needs are satisfied, we may still often (if not always) expect that a new discontent and restlessness will soon develop, unless the individual is doing what he is fitted for. (Maslow, 1943, p. 7). In other words, man is continually seeking self-improvement. More importantly, those individuals in whom a certain need has always been satisfied who are best equipped to tolerate deprivation of that need in the future, and that furthermore, those who have been deprived. . .in the past will react differently to current satisfactions than the one who has never been deprived. (Maslow, 1943, p. 8). Individuals will, according to Maslow seek self-improvement continuously and in a dynamic manner, moving up and down the hierarchy reacting differently depending on their prior exposure to need. Kreitner & Kinicki (2007, p. 237) are most clearly uninformed in their prescription for the use of the need hierarchy. [Maslow] believed human needs emerge in a generally predictable stair-step fashion . . .[o]nce a need is satisfied it activates the next higher need. . .this continues until the need for self actualization is activated. Therefore, managers are advised to motivate employees by devising programs or practices aimed at satisfying emerging or unmet needs. As I have described above, Kreitner & Kinicki have missed Maslows point. But to make it clear, I quote Maslow again: We have spoken so far as if this hierarchy were a fixed order but actually it is not nearly as rigid as we may have implied. (Maslow, 1943, p. 9). In the summary to his paper he suggested the areas that need further exploration before his hierarchy can be applied: Certain other basic problems have not been dealt with because of limitations of space. Among these are (a) the problem of values in any definitive motivation theory, (b) the relation between appetites, desires, needs and what is 'good' for the organism, (c) the etiology of the basic needs and their possible derivation in early childhood, (d) redefinition of motivational concepts, i. e., drive, desire, wish, need, goal, (e) implication of our theory for hedonistic theory, (f) the nature of the uncompleted act, of success and failure, and of aspiration-level, (g) the role of association, habit and conditioning, (h) relation to the [p. 396] theory of interpersonal relations, (i) implications for psychotherapy, (j) implication for theory of society, (k) the theory of selfishness, (l) the relation between needs and cultural

Debunking the pyramid Ray S. Jones patterns, (m) the relation between this theory and Alport's theory of functional autonomy. These as well as certain other less important questions must be considered as motivation theory attempts to become definitive. (Maslow, 1943, p. 14).

I suggest, that when our students propose Maslows hierarchy of needs as a motivation theory, or a textbook that we are using contains the inevitable Maslow pyramid, we as scholars offer the following responses: a. Maslow was generally not well understood in the management world and is often not correctly represented in textbooks. He was a Humanist Psychologist who can be studied in terms of the philosophy of hopefulness for humankind. Alderfer (1969) and McClelland (1961) directly used his ideas to create management theories based on needs. These are better representations of needs theories for students of management. b. Herzberg (1959) based some of his motivation theory on Maslow, and provides a testable and commonly used theory in management. Herzbergs theory is not a needs theory, and provides a good contrast to Alderfer and McClelland. References: Alderfer, C. P. (1969). An empirical test of a new theory of human needs. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 4, 142-175. Coy, D. R. & Kovaks-Long, J. (2005). Maslow and Miller: An exploration of gender and affiliation in the journey to competence. Journal of Counseling and Development, 83, 138-145. Cullen, D. & Gotell, L. (2002). From orgasm to organizations: Maslow, womens sexuality, and the gendered foundations of the needs hierarchy. Gender, Work, and Organization, 9(5), 537-555. Herzberg, F., Mausner, B., & Snyderman, B. B. (1959). The motivation to work. New York: Wiley. [Note: This is a seminal work. Add more current writings] Hoffman, E. (1999). The right to be human: A biography of Abraham Maslow. New York: McGraw-Hill. Kreitner, R. & Kinicki, A. (2007). Organizational Behavior (7th Ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370396. Obtained from Maslow, A. H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking Press.

Debunking the pyramid Ray S. Jones McClelland, D. C. (1961). The achieving society. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand. [note: This is a seminal work.] Nicholson, I. A. M. (2001). Giving up maleness: Abraham Maslow, masculinity, and the boundaries of psychology. History of Psychology, 4(1), 79-91.

Payne, R. L. (2000). Eupsychian management and the millennium. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 15(3), 219-226. Whittington, J. L. & Evans, B. (2005). The enduring impact of great ideas. Problems and Perspectives in Management, 2, 114-122.