Maslow‘s Hierarchy of Needs, Motivation in the workplace

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Summary / Abstract

This article will shed some light on the motivational theory and model of A. H. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is a broadly accepted model and theory for understanding what motivates people through, what needs they have. Maslow arranges the needs in a hierarchy in order of importance. This means that a higher level of need cannot be fulfilled unless all the needs of lower levels are satisfied[1]. In his theory motivation is derived from a lack of fulfillment of one need, and which ever level of need is deprived the most, will become what dominates the motivation of the person, in regards to the hierarchy off course[2]. Furthermore Maslow claims this model to be generally applicable for any one. This article will go through Maslow’s different levels of hierarchical needs, and how it relates to motivation of individuals in a project team. It will also be argued that it might relate analogously to program and portfolio management. To this context the main focus of this article will be the main 5 levels of needs. Further more it will be gone through what benefits a manager might expect from motivating employees. The application of the model and theory will be gone through followed by it's limitations and critiques of the theory, where the 6th level of the model will be mentioned. This should then give a better understanding of how a manager, whether the manager manages portfolios, programs, or projects, can improve the team's efforts and results by giving the proper motivation and covering the basic needs of the employee.

Maslow's Theory and Relevance in Project, Program, and Portfolio Management

Maslow's model consists traditionally of five levels of different types of needs. Late in Maslow's life he added a sixth level to the model, but this will only be mentioned at the end of the article. Mainly the focus of this article will be on the five common levels of needs, as these are still the main focus area of todays literature and practice [See bibliography]. Firstly they will be presented from a theoretical point of view, and later it will be presented from a project management perspective. It will be argued that the theory is equally important for Project, Program, and Portfolio-management (PPP-management), and for the sake of keeping it simple, it will be gone through in deeper detail from a project management perspective.

Motivational Theory

Maslow meant that any man is fundamentally good, and that we as individuals, has a constant and great potential and drive for growth. The "Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid"-Model(the HNP-model) that Maslow created in 1954, is a broadly accepted model for understanding human motivation. The pyramid consists of 5 levels of needs, that are universal, arranged in a hierarchy, so that the lower level needs must be fulfilled before higher level needs can be activated.[1]

The physiological needs are the first level. These consists of the need for water, food, sleep and shelter, making it the most fundamental, but also most important needs, as they relate directly to survival. The physiological needs are said to ignite the process of satisfaction [2], but they must be fulfilled, or none of the other needs will seem important. Maslow meant that if a person is lacking food, safety, love and recognition, than he or she would probably prioritize food the most.[2]

The safety needs are the second level of the pyramid. i.e. Protection from any dangers or threads. This could be the thread of loosing a new job, or being infected by a dangerous disease. The fear of these things will then motivate our behavior, to take precautions and try to stay safe. for example by working harder [2], or in the case of a pandemic, shutting down a country to keep the hospitals from overflowing with sick patients.

The Social needs are the third level. The need for love, belonging, close relations, and acceptance amongst peers are very fundamental needs for social creatures such as humans, and will motivate human behavior in almost any aspect off life[2].

The Esteem need also called ego needs, is the fourth level. These are split into two categories. A need for independence or autonomy and needs for self-esteem or self-worth. The first category are needs for achievement, adequacy, and freedom, where the second category are needs for Status, recognition, and prestige [1].

The Self-actualization needs are the fifth level and final level in the traditional pyramid. This is the need to live up to ones full potential, and to continue self development. Some might refer to this as fulfilling ones destiny or reaching ones full potential.[2]

From this model two postulates are worth highlighting. The first postulate is: "a satisfied need is not a motivator of behavior." [1] p. 9

And the second is: "To the extent that lower order needs become satisfied, the next higher-order level of needs becomes the most prepotent determinant of behavior" [1] p. 9.

This means that if an organization or a manager within that organization wants to have a high potential for motivating their employees, they must also incorporate high levels of satisfaction (i.e. high level of needs fulfilled). This will now be put into the context of PPP-management.

Maslow's Hierarchy in Project Management

A fundamental competency of any project manager is leadership of people[3], where motivation plays a vital role, and a fundamental responsibility of the project manager is what the team produces[3]. If the members of the team are not motivated to deliver high quality work, than a project failure is almost inevitable, therefore it is highly important for a manager to be able to motivate the team in order to steer it towards success[4]. A project team will consist of people and therefore will be executed by people also. If we are talking program- or portfolio-management, same basic principle applies, it will be managed and carried out by people, who should be highly motivated in order to deliver good quality results. Therefore, and not to clutter the following section, it will be from a project management point of view, regarding what in Maslow's motivational theory relates to project management and motivation of a project team and the individuals the team consists of.

Project teams will consist of different individuals, in different stages of their personal and professional lives, and possibly from different regions of the world[4]. These are factors that often put people on different levels of the pyramid, as needs for esteem and self actualization grow in strength as people mature professionally[1], where for a newly educated engineer high salaries or job benefits might be more motivating. Therefore it is important to be familiar with all levels of the pyramid. Below a figure has been reconstructed to show, how an engagement company in 2021 called "Engagement Multiplier"[5] uses Maslow's HNP-model in the context of a workplace. The text in the figure is from the original model, which can be found by using the source link below the picture:

Maslow hierarchy remake engagement pyramid.JPG

[5]: "" Maslow's Basic Needs Pyramid in the context of a workplace.

The physiological needs are the starting point of the pyramid, and in that way serve as a gateway to all higher needs[2]. In that sense it starts the process of satisfaction, where the higher needs are to be derived from the satisfaction of the physiological ones[2]. This is why they are also the most important needs to have fulfilled. If these needs are not fulfilled, than the other needs for safety, love and acknowledgement will be secondary[2]. Hence the team member wont be able to do anything constructive in regards to any project work. Therefore as a project manager it is important to have an awareness regarding how the physiological needs can be met even during the busiest of workdays. As the above figure indicates, the physiological needs are in modern societies, to a large extend, covered if the employee can afford to do so, how ever with the physiological needs satisfied higher levels of needs will become the motivator.

Safety needs of the team members will come from there concerns and fears. Examples relating to project management might be fear of loosing ones job or being harshly treated by a manager[2]. To a person, who is not satisfied in their safety needs, other needs as making friends with co-workers might become secondary. In a work environment, where team work plays a large role, as in many projects, this might not be desired. If the individuals of the team has safety needs, it might hurt their performance as a whole and ability to work together (although they might have good performance individually). Therefore these needs are important to satisfy to the project manager, as they relate to team performance[3]. To satisfy these needs, make sure that the work environment is a safe place, with positive and constructive communication, and where the team members feel wanted or needed.

The third level is the need for love and friendship. In project management this need relates especially to the sense of belonging, and feeling like they are a part of something bigger then themselves. Belonging to the team will be of great importance to the individuals if they are to do good team work[4]. If the over all team performance is poor, than it might be because the team development has not been optimal, and the needs of the third level are not satisfied. It is important to strengthen team work in the team through building trust amongst members, communicate openly and effectively, and create opportunities for team building[4]. This will help to develop the team better, and will improve the people skills, technical competencies, and overall team environment and project performance of the team[4]. To conclude; A Project manager is able to create stronger teams, better motivation, and higher project performance, by being aware of the need for love and belonging.

Esteem needs tend to be motivated by the needs of prestige, reputation, appreciation, and self-importance[2]. Needs of being appreciated for one's ability and capacity and to be acknowledged and rewarded for achievements[2] is the key motivators of this level. If the esteem needs are not met in the workplace it could result in the team member feeling discouraged, incapable, inferior, and ultimately lead to a demotivated employee, hence an unproductive employee[2]. It is therefore stressed how important acknowledgement and rewards are for motivation[4]. If the employee is rewarded for his hard work, than he is much more inclined to continue working hard. Here rewards would not necessarily be of mainly monetary value or promotions, also honorary titles (for example "Team Player of the Month", although cliché) might do the trick, to show the project team members that they are appreciated.

Once all the physiological-, safety-, social-, and esteem needs are satisfied, than the need to reach one's full potential, and to become everything one strives to be, becomes the ultimate need[2]. This level will accordingly to Maslow be the ultimate experience of an employee[6]. In the project team, team members will seek for a sense of professional maturity and growth[2]. This is when the work becomes fulfilling and satisfying, and motivation emerges from the work it self, and enables the individual to inspire the others in the team[5]. Realizing self-actualization, however, will be very different from individual to individual.

Any project team will consist of individuals working together adding their expertise to the process to achieve a higher goal (the purpose of the project)[4]. An example might be a project, where the goal is to design a high-tech 3D printer for private persons to use in their homes, the roles could be, but are not limited to an R&D specialist, a mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer, and a software specialist. Now it would not make much sense to make the electrical engineer responsible for making a beautiful design feature, nor have the software specialist analyze the flow of material through the nozzle of the printer head. Obviously assigning people to do tasks they are not qualified for makes for lousy project work, but also (and possibly because of) it makes for lousy motivation. Self actualization is realized through, what ever the individual finds to fulfil his or hers full potential[2]. Therefore if a person is a software specialist, it will make sense to motivate him or her through challenging and exciting software tasks, that aligns with the interests of the individual, to make him or her feel self actualized.

How to Apply The Theory

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is said to be applicable for all people, as it describes the basic needs of humans [6]. So if it applies to all, then how should one apply it, and where? The needs hierarchy has been applied within many fields and with many purposes. The hierarchy of needs have informed and inspired literature concerning development, dispute resolutions, terrorism, even corporate reputation and business management[2]. So how does it apply to project management?

For instance are lower level needs, something to consider already when hiring choosing people for a project. Level of salary and pension (make satisfaction of the physiological needs affordable), insurances (safety needs) and other job benefits are ways to cover an employees lower levels. Also supportive and constructive communication through out the project period will make the employees feel that their job position is more secure and that they are appreciated by the workplace[4].

The middle layer is the social needs. To create employee job satisfaction it is important to apply tools as team building. It will create trust amongst the members of the team, and help them get through the stages of team development[4]. Achieving the sense of belonging to the team will contribute to an employees commitment to the team members and their common mission to execute a successful project.

The higher level needs for esteem are greatly contributed through positive and open communication with the team members. Rewarding the team when milestones are reached are an important tool, and a good occasion to gather the team for social and more fun experiences together, that does not necessarily revolve around work[4], and will also support the satisfaction of the social needs. The esteem level of need is also important to consider when hiring new people. If a person expresses ambitions towards promotions and titles in a job interview, then this person wont be satisfied stuck in the same position for years on end. To optimally motivate this employee, than he or she should work on tasks that will bring him or her on the path to the sought after promotions and titles. Others might be very satisfied staying in a specific region of responsibility, as this region might be where they feel self-actualized. So how can a project manager offer the possibility of self actualization?

When trying to achieve the highest level of job satisfaction and motivation for the employees of the project team, your team members must feel like their work matters and has purpose. It must be fulfilling, and give them a sense of pride in their work. This may be maintained by asking the members what they want to learn from the project, why they want to to work on it, and how they hope to grow from it. These individual goals can then be supported through their area of responsibility and the tasks they are to solve through out the project period. According to Maslow, people are in constant development and strive to grow and mature. This personal development is crucial if the team members are to feel optimally motivated to work on a project, and according to Maslow it is these people, who have satisfied their need for self actualization, from whom you can expect the fullest and healthiest creativity[2]. Maslow calls these people basically satisfied people, and it can be claimed that these people also can inspire others in the project, and in that sense let their motivation rub of on those they work with[5].

Critiques and Limitations of the Model

The following section will go through three major critiques of Maslow's theory. This is based on the information found in the Book "Employee Motivation In Saudi Arabia; An investigation Into the Higher Education Sector" by R.H.M. Fallatah and J. Syed, chapter 2: "A Critical Review of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs".

One of the critic points of Maslow's theory is about how a deprivation of a need makes it a dominant need, and that a need left unsatisfied will remain dominant (i.e. the longer you starve the more dominant the need for food becomes till it dominates your behavior). This is also called the deprivation/domination proposition. However, several studies have failed to find empirical evidence for this aspect of the theory. However some studies has found support or partial support for the claim. One study showed that the greater a satisfaction of a need, the greater a decline in the strength of that need, which gives partial support to the proposition. An other study that found support for the deprivation/domination proposition, was one conducted on students by measuring prior attainment of a need, the intention of satisfying the need, and the importance of the need.

An other critique of Maslow's theory, is that of the "Self-actualization Need Complex". Especially how and who Maslow picked as being "Self-actualizers" has been criticized. The individuals Maslow chose were unusually fulfilled, achieved, and creative. The selection consists of individuals like Abraham Lincoln, Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Spinoza. This selection was predetermined and also limited to a special part of the American population on the basis of their respected characteristics. According to critiques, this has had an influence on the concept and has weakened its validity, in regards to bias. How ever the methodology used to examine the self-actualizers has also been criticized. When examining these individuals, with the purpose to formulate the concept of self-actualization, it was done merely by talking to them or reading the biographies of these highly educated achievers. Also the sample size has been criticized for being to small. Though critiques might be quick to reject the theory, others call the theory a derived one.

The Final point of critique is regarding the structure of the hierarchy with self-actualization at the top as the ultimate need. This is argued to only apply for individuals brought up in an individualistic society (USA, UK, and other western societies), and can only be embraced by people who embrace individualistic perspectives. Thus the hierarchy of needs has been criticized for only representing cultural values of the West, and not cultural values of the East, which undermines the theory greatly since Maslow claims it to be universal for all people.

The Sixth Level of Needs

In answer to these critiques (i.e. the individualism of self-actualization) Maslow added a sixth level to the model late in his life. This level has been described as being intrinsic values. Values like justice, truth, ethics, excellence and perfection, are said to transcend individualism and self interest, in terms off wider holistic matters concerning a greater good[7]. By putting the intrinsic values as the ultimate need to satisfy after self-actualization, Maslow mitigates a hard critique of his original model.

Annotated Bibliography

[1] Pardee, L. (1990) Motivation Theories of Maslow, Herzberger, McGregor & McClelland. A literature Review of Selected Theories dealing with job satisfaction and motivation. 1-24 - "A literature review of some of the most relevant theories dealing with job satisfaction and motivation, including Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Herzberger's Motivation Hygiene Theory, McGregor's X. Y. Theories, and McClelland's Need for Achievement Theory. Also a quick walk through of the model"

[2] Fallatah, R., & Syed, J. (2017). Employee Motivation in Saudi Arabia. An Investigation Into the Higher Education Sector., 19-59.

"A critical review of Maslow's theory and model, containing a literary review of different theories and how Maslow has contributed and affected other theorists and the field in general. Also an in depth walk through of the theory and model"

[3] Project Management Institute, Inc. (2017) Project Management: A guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK guide), 51-69.

"A guide of the competencies, skills, role, and tasks of a project manager. Skills including business analytics, stakeholder engagement, and management of a project team. "

[4] Project Management Institute, Inc. (2017) Project Management: A guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK guide), 307-359.

"A guide to resource management in PPP. Resources here are anything from monetary and materialistic resources to human resources and how to maintain them, including team development, and the importance of motivation of team members"

[5] (18/02/2021)

"A web-article on how an engagement company applies Maslow's model and theory within an organization, and how it contributes to understanding employee motivation and productivity in 2021"


"A theory of Human motivation by Maslow. Here he presents the Hierarchy of needs in great detail from a psychological point of view. He also describes the inconsistencies in the hierarchy, and what theoretical work the hierarchy is based on."


"A short description of a sixth level of the Needs Hierarchy. A contribution to the theory made late in Maslow's life, that describes what may motivate self-actualized individuals. This level consists of intrinsic values."

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