Maslow's theory & approach to leadership style

Written by stephen byron cooper Google
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Maslow's theory & approach to leadership style
Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs (Getty Thinkstock)

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) was one of the founders of “humanistic psychology” and the author of a groundbreaking book, called “Motivation and Personality,” which was published in 1954. This book summarised Maslow’s findings up to that date and revealed to the non-academic world a theory known as the “Hierarchy of Needs,” or “Maslow’s Theory.” That theory is still regarded as one of the best methods to plan the motivation of staff.

Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is always represented as a pyramid. This diagram illustrates five levels of “need.” No one can be expected to participate in higher -level activities if they have an unfulfilled lower-layer need. Maslow gave his theory five levels of need, although he did not originally depict these in the now-familiar pyramid structure.

Levels of need

The bottom layer of the hierarchy concerns biological and physiological needs. This group includes our basic need for food, water, shelter and sleep. If you lost everything you had, you would prioritise these needs above all other considerations. The next level up covers “safety needs.” These needs cover our need for stability and the fabric of social responsibility that inspires human beings to cooperate with the law. One level up from security, lies the level of needs that deals with relationships, which Maslow grouped as “belongingness and love needs.” These needs include the need to be in a relationship, be part of a family and relate to work colleagues. Esteem needs sit on top of relationship needs. These include the human drive for status, responsibility and esteem. This is the level where people’s dreams of promotion come into play. The top layer in the pyramid is occupied by a self-actualisation layer. People operating at this level are going to behave unconventionally and aim for artistic achievement rather than material gain.

Management considerations

Maslow’s Theory informs management theorists of what motivates people and what may hinder their development. This theory may explain why creative and inventive people are highly paid - they are not highly paid because they are creative, they are creative because they are highly paid. It also gives an alternative explanation of why “time serving” is a method of obtaining promotion. By Maslow’s Theory, longer serving staff are not better suited for promotion because they have more experience in the organisation, but that they are focused on promotion because they have earned enough money for long enough to not be worried about paying their bills.

Counter-intuitive solutions

Knowing about motivation does not prescribe a specific style of leadership. For example, a staff member who has mortgage problems is caught up with level 2 issues and so is not concerned about teamwork, which is a level 3 pursuit. One manager may decide to use this information to assist the struggling worker to overcome their mortgage problems and move on to become a fully functioning team player. Another manager may point to the same two levels in the hierarchy and conclude that the worker will never be a team player and so sack them.

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