Sunday, August 18, 2013

Maslow: Still Relevant 70 Years Later

Being an effective leader is not easy. With all of the external factors that can affect performance seemingly coming at an ever-increasing pace, keeping an organization operating at a high level can be a difficult job. With the continual changes in technology, markets, and regulations, however, the most difficult aspect of leadership continues to be the same as is has for the last 100 or more years: people.

Organizations have gotten thinner in recent years forcing managers to increasingly become doers. Because of this, the importance and complexities of helping team members be satisfied and productive in their jobs has unfortunately become more of an afterthought than a priority. Although we talk about the importance of developing and motivating people, our actions say otherwise.


In 1943, Psychological Review published A Theory of Human Motivation by Abraham Maslow. In the paper Maslow presented the results of a study of highly successful people, including Albert Einstein, Frederick Douglass, and Eleanor Roosevelt focused on understanding what motivates people to become high performers. As a result of the study, Maslow proposed that the stages of growth of human beings tends to follow a pattern which he characterized as a hierarchy of needs, or stages of development that drive motivation.

As presented in the diagram, the stages generally go from lower-level basic survival needs to higher-level increasingly sophisticated needs focused on fulfilling one's potential.*

The hierarchy proposed by Maslow has been taught in business schools for years as a component of effective leadership. Leaders need to understand where team members are in the pyramid as a basis for motivation and development. Also, it's important to understand that a person can move up and down the hierarchy depending on his or her individual circumstances, including things like personal relationships, impending layoffs, health, or a variety of other factors.

Effective leaders appreciate the importance of building relationships with those on his or her team to understand how to best help them develop and grow and be successful. When the leader is too busy doing things other than coaching and developing team members, there will be a tendency to treat everyone the same and focus only on group motivation techniques, often resulting in dissatisfied team members, poor performance, and high turnover.

To improve the situation, leaders need to be taught how to apply the hierarchy in everyday situations.  They need to be given the ability to work closely with those they lead, and held accountable for the development, motivation, and retention of team members.

Leadership is a serious responsibility and there is no magic formula to assure success. Maslow gave us a model 70 years ago that, although not necessarily making the job any easier, can make it much more effective. The hierarchy presents a hypothesis that spending time with people and treating them as individuals can lead to increased success for the person, the leader, and the organization. And when you get down to it, anyone who doesn't think it's important to spend time with team members really has no business being in a leadership position.
* NOTE: Maslow never actually presented the hierarchy in terms of a pyramid.  The pyramid was developed much later as a simple way to graphically depict the theory.

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