Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a pyramid of the needs that motivate people. Individuals most basic needs, at the base of the pyramid, are physiological. Once they have fulfilled these needs, people move on to their safety needs, social well-being, self-esteem then ultimately their need for self-actualization.

Summary by The World of Work Project


Maslow’s Theory

Abraham Maslow’s theory is one of the earliest and most well know theories of motivation. It’s often shown as a triangle, or pyramid. It fits into the content school of motivation theories, meaning that it focuses primarily on what motivates people, not the processes through which they are motivated.

The theory was first proposed in the 1940s, but first fully expressed in 1954. Like most content models of motivation, some people have challenged the validity of some aspects of this model. Despite this, its popular and has been fairly well accepted into the business community. You may well have seen it in leadership and personal development programs in the world of work.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs says that all humans share the same types of needs, and that these categories of needs have a hierarchy. Loosely speaking, this hierarchy goes from the basic things we need for survival through to a sense of fulfilling our potential and finding our purpose in life.

The hierarchy is important as, from a motivational perspective, it acts as a ladder. What this means is that individuals must have fully met their needs at their current level within the pyramid, before they are motivated by achieving the needs of the next level up. Put more bluntly, an individual who is struggling to to put a roof over their head will focus on that before exploring their true calling in life.

Maslow's Hierarchy of needs shown as a pyramid

Level 1: Physiological Needs

The most basic category of needs that humans have are physiological. These are our survival needs, and the first things we need to achieve before we move on towards more complex and aspirational needs in life. Our physiological needs include our bodily requirements like sleep, food and water as well as the basics of shelter and clothing. If we lack any of these needs, we need to fulfill them before we can be motivated to pursue other needs.

Level 2: Safety Needs

Safety First! Oh wait. Safety is second…

Once someone has achieved their physiological needs, they are motivated to achieve their safety needs. Fundamentally these safety needs are about removing risk from life and helping individuals maintain their physiological needs into the future. Safety needs include physical and emotional security, housing beyond the most basic of shelters, health and financial security. 

Level 3: Social Belonging

The third level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs introduces the need for social belonging. The model says that once individuals have met their physiological and safety needs, their next priority becomes the pursuit of social belonging.

Humans are fundamentally social beings and the need for social belonging is strong in most people. Once humans have met their basic needs they start to pursue things like family relationships, friendships, community relationships and the sense of acceptance and belonging that many people find rewarding.

Level 4: Self-esteem

Maslow’s model says that once humans have met their need for social belonging and acceptance, that they start to focus on themselves and their self-esteem.

These needs are all about satisfying the ego and being valued. Maslow divided this need into two levels. At the lower level, individuals seek to achieve status, respect and recognition from others. At the higher level, they seek these things from themselves.

As an aside, you might find the Harrill Self Esteem Inventory interesting. It’s a simple tool for measuring your self esteem.

Level 5: Self-Actualization

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs says that once humans have satisfied their ego and obtained self-esteem that their ultimate need is that of self-actualization. This slightly clunky phrase simply means that humans want to feel that they are fulfilling their potential and making the most of their abilities. In many ways this is very similar to Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, which loosely translates as fulfilling your true nature.

Later in life Maslow added a further stage which he called transcendence, which he said was about giving oneself to something beyond oneself. This could be in the form of altruism or spirituality and could involve people achieving their purpose in the world. We don’t focus on this sixth stage.

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The Public and Business View

The public, some business and a view.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has always been popular with the public. People like it because they find it really easy to relate to. It’s simple and clear and all the needs captured in the model are things that individuals have thought about before. The model is intuitive. When people look at it they can see themselves in it, they can determine where they are on the pyramid, and they can easily see others in it as well.

This easy connection with the model has meant that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has become popular in the business world as well. It frequently appears in leadership and personal development programs as a tool that individuals and leaders can use to assess motivations and motivational drivers.

Using the Model in the World of Work

Isn’t this 1:1 so much fun!

From a work perspective, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is most commonly used as a personal development and self-reflection tool. Generally speaking, the model is delivered through training or facilitation to individuals who then reflect on it and use their thoughts to inform things like their development or career plans. As such, the model can be helpful as a direction setting tool for improving satisfaction. Leaders can also use the model as a tool to use in coaching the individuals within their team.

Learning More

We’ve written several articles on various content and process theories of motivation that you might find interesting. These include articles on Adam’s equity theory and Herzberg’s two factor theory of motivation. We’ve also written an introductory post of Adair’s 8 basic rule of motivation and have a guest post on Reversal Theory. You can listen to our podcast on reversal theory below:

The World of Work Project View

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is popular, simple and potentially helpful, despite the some of the academic critique it receives.

In our view the model is useful in that it does capture and lay out a collection of generally accepted human needs. Individuals and leaders may benefit from reflecting on the needs that the model captures, despite the fact that the hierarchy itself probably cannot be relied upon.

We believe that this model is more of a personal development or even life coaching tool than a work related tool. While it is interesting and engaging, we don’t really recommend using it in the workplace.

For those interested in motivation though, this tool is an important part of the history to the field. It is one of many tools and nothing more. There are many other tools that are more useful for actually understanding human motivation. In reality though, no one tool captures human motivation and we recommend understanding many models if you’re truly interested in motivation as a subject.

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In this post we’ve focused mostly on work originating from Maslow’s 1954 book: “Motivation and personality”.

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