Are we throwing out the baby with the bath water in pursuit of a modern approach to motivation?

Photo by Shridhar Gupta on Unsplash

The most widely known ‘Needs Theory’ has, during recent years, come under increasing pressure and in many circles is regarded as old-fashioned or totally incompatible with modern corporate motivation. In many cases, management adherence to these principals is accused of focusing on purely financial motivators, normally around big bonus incentives along with job security. In my opinion, companies that operate in this manner are not doing so based on Maslow, they are either deliberately mis-interpreting the principle or indeed have no knowledge of what the hierarchy implies. More modern motivational practices today focus on terms such as, Autonomy, Relatedness and Competence and are valid. They are well researched and useful and should be implemented where possible. My argument is that the two are not mutually exclusive. 

Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ is often interpreted in line with his initial summation that one level has to be completely satisfied before the person can move on to the next level. Many scholars have questioned this and the more modern approach is that overlapping can and does occur. It’s perfectly normal for a person to strive to attain self-fulfilment, in whatever form that takes, whilst worrying about paying the mortgage at the end of the month. The basic point that is often used by motivational principals disputing Maslow is that the theory is rigid and that it implies I won’t be motivated by aspiring for better things if I can’t satisfy the basic needs. Therefore I am only thinking about paying the mortgage. This is and I agree with the disputers, fundamentally wrong and is the main reason it has come under such pressure. It’s easy to argue that it is wrong based on this type of rigid argument instead of understanding the fundamental point which is that when push comes to shove and choices need to be made, the basic principal will always win the day. Let me give you an example.
I, for many reasons, both complex and fundamental to who I am have embarked upon a career centred around writing. This is no way gives me the financial security I have previously enjoyed. I now have to think on a daily basis about bills to be paid, my food, shelter and basic needs are all relevant factors. My writing gives me joy, it’s an aspiration I have had for many years and it provides the self-esteem I am searching for. I will continue but, if I face the situation of not being able to feed myself or pay for accommodation it will end, maybe temporarily, but my self-esteem will be shelved whilst I seek fulfilment of my basic needs. This is, I would suggest, not uncommon and in my opinion is the most overlooked facet when the principal is overlooked in favour of more modern motivational principals.
The fundamental area in which Maslow is accused of providing poor corporate direction is in the area of companies that employ low salary/high commission or bonus structures. These companies are common in both the financial services and within sales focused organisations. It is often portrayed that these organisations are working on the principal of Maslow by providing a structure to force the employee to strive for earnings that fulfil the basic level of the hierarchy. Categorically, these organisations, and I have worked for a few, have no concept of Maslow and are purely motivated by costs. They consider employees as disposable assets and will look to reduce costs wherever possible. The concept that the employee will remain motivated because they have to struggle every month to achieve a basic standard of living is counterproductive and is the main reason why the turnover is so high and the company closures enormous. This type of structure was common during the boom years of the 80’s and 90’s and in some ways the success of many organisations through that time provided justification for the principle. But I would say again, Maslow had nothing to do with this. If his principle is used as justification I would say that either the principle is mis-understood or just quoted as a convenient excuse by those that dispute the method.
Based on this bad press, it is easy to see why Maslow’s principles are largely regarded as dated and not compatible with modern corporate entities. It is easy to see why more advanced theories are preferable and implemented. Increased standards of living throughout the west have also enabled the focus to shift to higher aspirations for employees. The basic needs are largely taken care of, is the perception, so basing employee motivation on higher level achievements makes sense. But does this really mean that Maslow’s principals have been proved wrong or is it that we are more focused on the higher levels of achievement. Employees can be more concerned with the self-esteem elements now, like autonomy, self realisation etc. This is the main point of my argument, it is the more modern approach and is valid but it is only possible where the basic needs are fulfilled and is therefore not competing with Maslow but purely a more defining way to look at the higher levels.
If we want to say that this motivational policy replaces Maslow then what happens when we ignore the basic levels of motivation. It’s ok within many corporate organisations, large consulting firms etc., to say that research says that employees are motivated by their realisation of self-important goals.  I do not doubt for one minute they are. In the main, the majority of employees are probably so far beyond the basic levels as defined by Maslow that they don’t feel that these are the important factors for them in motivational terms. The basic principal of Maslow, as I see it, is that once these lower levels are achieved they no longer serve as motivation factors. This does not mean they don’t exist. Corporations and companies that implement motivational policy based on the money being the most important motivator are also missing the point and clearly not motivating their employees efficiently.

“The basic principal of Maslow, as I see it, is that once these lower levels are achieved they no longer serve as motivation factors. This does not mean they don’t exist”

Modern companies and organisations need a balance. Basic needs need to be addressed first and these are motivation factors. Once the basics are addressed then advanced motivating factors can come to the forefront. It’s easy today in many large corporations, where manual and low paid requirements are outsourced to Asia or other countries to say employee attitudes have changed. But this doesn’t work for the majority of companies operating in the west which are small medium enterprises, not utilising outsourcing and having a higher percentage of lower paid employees. These employees are still motivated by financial factors. Providing shelter and security for themselves and family is still the primary motivational factor for employment. They would, I’m sure, love to be focused more on self-esteem, but only once they have that security. Local Government employees and retail workers are just some of the areas in which we see money as the most important factor. Governments as a whole have worked to provide some of this security with minimum wage requirements and whilst a burden on the small business, it has to be addressed.
None of this means that we should return to the bad-old days of solely focusing on financial incentives for employees, but it doesn’t mean we should ignore them or ignore a fundamental principal that has served business well for many decades. To say Maslow is wrong risks that. To say it is a flexible method to understand motivation is a far more realistic way of addressing that. It’s fashionable in today’s society to hold an opinion and to not accept others, as opposed to adapting the original ideas. With employee retention and motivation as important drivers for any business, you can see why new ideas are implemented and old ideas ridiculed. But, perhaps careful analysis would show the marriage of ideas to be also a perfectly acceptable way to manage.
Employees in the main look to their employer to provide them with their basic security in exchange for their loyalty and productivity in the workplace. Once this is addressed, the factors that motivate can be more self-aspirational and should be. Exactly as predicted by the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’. To date, I have seen no evidence that disputes the basic principal. Many valid discussions on different definitions reflecting more modern terms, but allowing for the one area of dispute, the flexibility to move from one level to the next, nothing that says it’s any less relevant today than at any other time.

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