Maslow, Abraham Harold (1908-1970) is an American psychologist, and representatives of Humanistic psychology studied at the City College in New York and at the University of Wisconsin. From 1937 to 1951, he taught at Brooklyn College in New York and subsequently worked as a university teacher at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Maslow assumed the holistic nature of man. He accused Orthodox behaviorism of being too theoretical. On the other hand, he criticized psychoanalysis, which in his opinion was too concerned with diseases.

In humanistic psychology, he saw a ‘’third force’’, which should initiate a “rehumanization of all science”.


He developed a theory of motivation in which he described the process that an individual goes through from fulfilling his/her basic needs such as eating, drinking and living to self – actualization – the realization of the entire potential of a person –  as the highest need. If the self-actualization fails, this leads to disease. He regarded the needs as the motives of action, which are arranged hierarchically. The hierarchy is culture-dependent and varies between individuals and at different times. The satisfaction of lower needs leads to the appearance of higher.

In the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, he presented the conditions (order, freedom), basic needs (physiological phenomena such as Hunger, thirst, sexuality, needs for love, self-respect, Prestige, etc.), the growth needs (need for meaning, order, justice, etc.), as well as self-actualization (its own nature to remain faithful). The humanistic psychotherapy is designed to support the individual through these phases.

Examples and Criticisms of Motivation Theory

Which motives do people have? That’s what content theories are about motivation. The most prominent of these is certainly the hierarchy of needs of Maslow. Content theories of motivation have the merit that they have sensitized for the fact that people have other needs and motives except for money. But they have also done a lot of damage in practice because they were usually very doubtful and are full of false assumptions.

 The chapter introduces the Maslow pyramid. There are examples and tips, show the criticism and the benefit of this motivation theory.

Which Motives Are There? – Theories

In practice, people like to focus on money as a dominant incentive and dominant motive. But are not there any more elegant approaches and more powerful motives than money? In psychology, the thinking was more differentiated from the beginning than in economics. Thus, at the beginning of psychological motivational research, a guiding idea prevailed, symbolizing the above illustration:

“Behind every behavior, there must be few underlying motives that are common to all people. With these generally valid motives then also all behaviors and goals of humans should be explained. By identifying these universal motives, we can effectively motivate each person. “

According to this pattern of thinking, people started looking for the central motives of humans early on. At that time, psychologists barely used empirical research to justify and validate their theories. These early psychologists have suggested the most diverse lists of (so-called) motives.

It is striking that the proposed lists barely agree with each other and also contain a variety of numbers – allegedly all people underlying motives. Sometimes even hundreds of motives were assumed. These differences may well be attributed to the various human images of the respective creators of the lists.

Thus, in the different lists instead of research results, the personal assumptions of the creators about the motivation of people are reflected in the end. Correspondingly, psychologists, for example, find the motive with the rational image of a economic man “Money”. The human image of the human relations perspective is dominated by the motive “social contact” and by humanistic scientists the motive of “self-actualization“.

This quickly shows that these early representatives and theories are not scientific in the modern sense. The next section introduces Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as an example of a content theory of motivation.


Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs

level of Maslow's Hierarchy Of Needs

The most well-known representative of a content theory of motivation is certainly the Hierarchy Of Needs of humanistic Abraham Maslow. Also in practice, maslow’s pyramid is well known and widely used as a model.

It is therefore discussed here as an example for all other content theories of motivation.

Maslow’s theory is based on a hierarchical structure of motives – hence the term Hierarchy Of Needs. Instead of motive, he uses the term Hierarchy Of Needs. As the lowest level of the pyramid, Maslow takes on the basic physiological needs (e.g hunger, thirst, respiration). Only when these are satisfied, so the theory and next higher motive group is activated. It is followed by social needs such as contact, love, and belonging. In turn, there are needs for self-esteem such as recognition and status. At the top of the pyramid is the need for self-actualization.

An important assumption of the theory is the stages and the hierarchical structure: Only when the lower need class is satisfied, the next upper need class can be activated. Therefore, for example, someone can only seek self-fulfillment when all the underlying needs are satisfied.

The theory of Maslow seems plausible to many people at first glance and has spread accordingly successfully in practice. The next section shows examples of employee needs.

Hierarchy Of Needs pyramid on the example of employees

In fact, the Hierarchy Of Needs can serve as a kind of checklist to identify where there may still be motivation for employees. The following table provides a few ideas and examples.

 Level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

  • Physiological needs: good air, food , silence, low-pollution environment, ergonomic furniture, …
  • Security needs: long-term employment contracts, insurance cover (sickness), old-age provision, sufficiently good salary, preservation of the market value of employees, …
  • Social needs: a good working atmosphere, good relations with superiors and colleagues, teamwork, joint events (company outing),…
  • Self-worth: public recognition, praise from superiors, titles and status symbols (official cars), …
  • Self-actualization: Freedom at work, opportunities to decide, training and career opportunities, opportunities to take on project or leadership responsibilities, …

But what, after a closer look, is to be held by the assumptions of Abraham Maslow’s theory? This is discussed in the next section.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Criticism

The Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid has received much criticism. Here are the main points.

Even without extensive scientific studies, simple everyday observations give rise to doubts about the hierarchy of motives assumed by Maslow. We find people who have their security for status (Self-esteem) (e.g test of courage) risking self-fulfillment (e.g starving for a slim figure or risky cosmetic surgery for a certain appearance) and also people who compromise for loved ones (social needs) in extreme cases (safety).

The Fluctuations in the meaning and even the entire hierarchy of motives can affect entire groups of employees. Thus, the importance of aspects of safety or self-actualization can vary greatly depending on the stage of life and age. Social motives can also be significantly different across cultures – for example, belonging to social groups is more important in China than in Germany.

Of course, if the assumptions of Maslow’s theory were correct, it would have serious implications for practice. For example, it would make no sense to offer consumer products that increase their prestige (self-esteem) when the social need for contact (social needs) is not yet satisfied. But more likely, someone who longs for social affiliation is even more vulnerable to status-based offers.

Similarly, it would make no sense to give employee freedom at work (self-fulfillment), if the social need for contact is not yet satisfied or he still does not enjoy a high status (self-esteem). These examples quickly show that Maslow’s theory is alien to the hierarchical structure. A blunt observation of the hierarchy of needs leads to nonsensical and even harmful in practice.

In fact, the results of empirical reviews of Maslow’s theory are correspondingly negative. However, apart from the alleged hierarchy, among others, the demarcation of the motive classes are assumed by Maslow could not be scientifically confirmed. The motives are formulated in such an abstract way that almost every behavior can be explained with all of them and that contradictory behavior can be reduced to the same motives.

Someone can focus on work and neglect the family – self-actualization! Someone with the opposite behavior can fully focus on the family and neglect of work – also self-actualization!

Of course, both of them can also be a social need for contact: the first seeks contact with colleagues, the second with family. This leads to the theory that you can explain every behavior seemingly but can’t predict anything and can hardly derive practical measures. What is the use, for example, of knowing that employees have a high desire for self-fulfillment? Very little, because the individual ideas of how self-actualization actually seems are too different.

For the purposes of employee motivation, motives on a much more concrete level are therefore more meaningful: for example, how much decision-making freedom or variety do employees want in their work tasks. At this level, one could then predict very well which task or employee can motivate and also simply derive practical measures for more motivation.

In addition, the content of the model also lacks essential motives – such as performance or power. Maslow sees as a humanist only the “sunny” side of the motivation of people, such as the desire for social affiliation. Other motives, for example, to exclude and differentiate others, to have power over people, the desire to suppress them or even greed he does not see.

The theory assumes that all people have the same motives. As a result, attention is lost to important differences in motivation between people (and even entire groups of people). In fact, people react very differently to the same incentives and have very different motivations that drive them. Elsewhere, too, there are large differences in people’s motivation, such as optimism, personality, self-efficacy or self-regulation.

Needs Pyramid : Tips for Employee Motivation

Needs Pyramid

Besides the criticism, there are also positive aspects. So what is left of the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid for the practice of employee motivation? What contribution can it make?

  • Indisputable is a heuristic value of the theory for psychological laymen. With the pyramid ideas for incentives can be developed in practice. It is a template to consider for each step on the pyramid: what do we offer our employees here? Can we reasonably associate this with work performance or other goals in employee behavior?
  • But beware: Well-meant is not automatically done well. Some employers offer their employees relatively uncritical incentives across the different levels of the pyramid. This does not automatically lead to higher performance. A good social environment is likely to increase employee satisfaction, or perhaps their attachment, or perhaps even distract from work performance – social issues are then central. It may also be that certain incentives for some groups of employees are simply uninteresting. The costs then run ineffectively into the void. It is, therefore, necessary to warn against an undifferentiated and naive application of the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and other content theories.
  • In addition, the theory is too abstract for the concrete motivation of employees. It does not provide sufficient answers as to how motivational leadership should look like, how tasks should be designed, what a work environment should look like or how to formulate goals.

The following table summarizes these positive and critical aspects of Maslow’s Needs Pyramid.

Positive Aspects Of The Maslow Theory

  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid makes clear that different motives can stand behind the motivation for behavior.
  • The theory has sensitized in practice that not only money is relevant if you want to motivate employees.
  • Using the pyramid, ideas for incentives can be developed in practice. It is a good guide to consider for each step on the pyramid: what do we offer our employees here?

Critical Aspects Of Maslow’s Theory

  • Instead of scientific results and theories, the theory is based on ideology. It is guided by the idea that the ultimate goal of people is their self-actualization.
  • That needs as required are hierarchical have not been confirmed. This does not only apply to individual cases, but to entire groups of employees.
  • The pyramid with the prefabricated motive obscures the view of other important motives . For example, it does not contain either performance or power motives.
  • With the assumption that all people have the same motives, the view for important differences between people is lost.
  • In addition, the theory is too abstract for meaningful use by employees. For practical questions, such as what motivational leadership looks like, it gives hardly any answers.

If you want to motivate effectively, content theories are at best a first start (with some risks) but not a solution. This is also the following tips.

Practical Tips

  • What can you learn and take away from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for practice? If one wants to identify fields in order to motivate employees for more work, the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can provide first clues. In a brainstorming, one can think about which of the contained motives may be linked to work activity.
  • When using the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid, however, it must be remembered at some point in time that the pyramid rather restricts creativity than really enriches it, because very important aspects are simply excluded. For concrete questions, the theory is usually just too crude and too flawed. For example, the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid will not provide a useful answer to how to motivate Chinese high-potentials in German companies in China or even how to motivate a work task. So, it is time to move away from the pyramid and think further – not to stop at Maslow in the 1950s.
  • Because of its widespread use in teaching and practice, the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid is also a good example of the often completely uncritical spread and naive application of seemingly plausible but largely wrong psychological assumptions in practice. The theory transports a finished image of man, that has more to do with ideology than with science. But it sounds plausible to many and can be comfortably taken over – you do not seem to have to deal with the employees, because “The pyramid shows that everything is important!”.  As a result, the decision-makers who rely on it lead to errors and inefficiencies in employee motivation. The next chapter deals with this risk.


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