Deconstructing the Pyramid Theory of Motivation
It is, literally, an age-old question: How can you successfully motivate your employees? According to history, the Egyptians supplied rations of beer for the men (admittedly <i>not</i> employees) who built the pyramids. Today tech startups offer table tennis and foosball tables.
Abraham Maslow built a pyramid of a different sort, and it has come to play a role in employee motivation, but some say that's a mistake. In 1943 Maslow published his famous theory on the "Hierarchy of Needs," often explained as a pyramid that puts essential needs (food, shelter) at the base and less tangible needs further toward the pinnacle. Since then, companies have adapted his theory to the business world. Susan David, a psychologist and organizational consultant, argues that Maslow never structured human needs as a pyramid. That was an invention for textbooks, David writes in the Harvard Business Review. The adaptation imposed on his ideas skewed his theory.
"People latched onto this pyramid structure immediately. But, in doing so, they forgot Maslow's many notes about the dynamic messiness of human motivation, which we usually experience in one conscious stream rather than small parts," David writes. "He would probably be appalled at how we use his theory today."
Managers regard the Hierarchy of Needs as a concrete, unwavering fact: If you take care of your employees' physiological needs, they will ultimately feel loved, enjoy high self-esteem, and achieve self-actualization. But even the man himself didn't believe it was that easy: "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 wrote.
David says she hears managers and leaders cite Maslow all the time. As managers at one global comapny debated how to improve employee engagement, one executive suggested cash-based incentives, saying that salaries and benefits would give employees' food and shelter, critical components of a march up the pyramid.
"The hierarchy has become something of an unquestioned 'fact.' It's cited in HR manuals, business class syllabi, and leadership presentations," David says. "People use it to push the idea that the basics--like a fair salary or a safe work environment--are the employee engagement tools that matter most. But here's the problem: the pyramid version of Maslow's theory doesn't usually apply to the world of professional work."
A safe working environment is (or should be) a given. Assuming you pay reasonably well, David argues that your real managerial concern should be to make sure that your employees' emotional needs are being met.
David conducted a recent study on engaged companies in which she asked employees what makes them feel engaged. She found that only 4 percent of respondents mentioned pay. "Instead, they highlighted feeling autonomous and empowered, and a sense of belonging on their teams. We all know people who trade high salaries and even safety for love, esteem, and self-actualization at work--the accountants who become high school teachers, or the journalists who move to war zones with pennies in their pockets," David writes.
This isn't a suggestion to cut salaries and start hugging your employees, but to resist the temptation to throw money at problems that require different solutions. A feeling of being included and empowered, and the ability to grow, are the factors that keep employees from bolting for a higher-paying gig.
"The reality is that human needs can't be neatly arranged into a pyramid. Motivation isn't simple, and it's certainly not linear. Different people are motivated by different things," David writes. "I understand why we've latched onto the hierarchy of needs. A motivation checklist would be nice. But we're not working with a fixed or universal process. There are many factors that contribute to engagement, including teams, autonomy, interesting work, recognition, and individual development. So don't let the basics of compensation and benefits drive your people strategy or the way you lead. Your employees deserve much more than a pyramid."
WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com
Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported on the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.