Wednesday, 20 May 2020

The pyramid scheme that was Maslow

Source: Thompkins-Jones (24 July 2014)
In 1943, a psychologist called Abraham Maslow presented a framework in a paper proposing that we humans had a stepped range of needs, called the hierarchy of needs. Maslow says in his paper that while the needs appear to be progressive, they are not equally important to  individuals, and further notes that he does not want to "give the false impression that a need must be satisfied 100 per cent before the next need  emerges" (1943, p. 389). He provides an example that an average person might reach "85 per cent in [their] physiological needs, 70 per cent in [their] safety needs, 50 per cent in [their] love needs, 40 per cent in [their] self-esteem needs, and 10 per cent in [their] self-actualization needs" (p. 390). And note those headings: they too have changed since Maslow wrote his original psychology paper.

Researcher John Ballard hunted through the "Maslow archives at the Center for the History of Psychology at the University of Akron in Ohio", and after an extensive and wide-ranging research programme with his fellow authors, Todd Bridgman and Stephen Cummings, "found no trace of Maslow framing his ideas in pyramid form” (2019, p. 82). They further note that up until the 1980s, the preferred model for Maslow's hierarchy of needs was a ladder, where the reader could imagine simultaneous points of contact with different rungs. This ladder framework is more in keeping with what Maslow outlines in his original 1943 paper. Maslow's ideas do not fit a pyramid.

What is also interesting is how Maslow's work transferred from psychology to management. Bridgman et al. state "Douglas McGregor [..] encountered it in 1944 and drew on it in developing his famous Theory X and Theory Y concept" (2019, p. 84). Correspondence which followed between the two academics resulted in McGregor championing the hierarchy of needs; in industry, at conferences, and publishing papers about it. McGregor's interest arose at an opportune time when returned service people were coming back from WW2 in Europe and the Pacific, and enrolling at university. The GI Bill for returned service people included fully-funded MBAs from a grateful American public.

It was McGregor who made Maslow famous, although until the early 1960s, Maslow's thinking which inspired McGregor's Theory X and Theory Y was hidden, unacknowledged, within McGregor's work (Bridgman et al., 2019). Maslow's hierarchy first appears as a demi-ziggurat image by Davis (1957, as cited by Bridgman et al., 2019), and then as a pyramid from McDermid (1960, as cited by Bridgman et al., 2019). Both of models are clearly targeting business readers, being published respectively in Human Relations in Business, and Business Horizons (Bridgman et al., 2019). Maslow is now a management hot property, complete with a shape which means change in mathematics, with the layers of the model named as physiological needs, safety, social, esteem, and self-realisation needs (McDermid, 1960, as cited by Bridgman et al., 2019). Note the changes of rung names from paragraph one.

Many elements got lost as time ticked on, such as Maslow's initial idea that people can be at many stages, all at once (1942). In a later book, Maslow talks about transcendence, which seems to imply there may be a level past that of self-actualisation (1962). Maslow also proposes that, to be healthy and to grow, humans need to use their capacities - such as striving, physiology, intelligence, and love - or potentially may suffer from either physical or psychic disease (1962). These ideas have not been reflected in the pyramid that the management field has adopted.

After the experiences of WW2, Maslow sought peace, yet we have "ignore[d] some of [his] more egalitarian principles" (MacLellan, 2019). Additionally, Maslow had some interesting ideas about women - saying about Mexican women that "one woman is about as good as another, and that she is interchangeable with others. She discovers that she is not valuable; it is the class 'woman' that is valuable" in the eyes of Mexican men (1962, p. 121). Ouch.

Maslow was a free-thinker, and his thinking probably still has value: even if we have not been able to gather research evidence that his model actually works in practice. We do, however, need to remind ourselves that his model is: (a) not a pyramid; (b) not sequential; (c) not absolute; and (d) is not a management model. 

If we read what Maslow originally wrote, then it is a useful as a lens to consider what may be holding us - or others - back.



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