Motivation is one of the most debated and perhaps poorly described personal psychological aspects of humans. There are countless articles titled something like "How to motivate your employees", "Managing motivation" and "Mastering motivation", most of which I find to be nonsense.

Scientific management as formulated by Winslow Taylor and most scientific management schools for over 50 years ignored motivation as a separate topic, you pay people to work and they work. Result: disengaged employees - not a problem when you need their hands and not their minds; or pay them per part, so they churn out the parts without any concern for quality.

I remember visiting a famous American car maker who invented mass assembly and they did just that; the workers were paid as bit part workers. The more parts they made, the more they were paid, hence quality was ignored in the quest to meet or exceed a quota. This was also the case for a lot of salesmen who sold on commission.

It often feels that way today when many call center people call you or you call them, in fact when you read the industry articles, it is often about reducing time per call. Treat people as respected individuals? No, we have a sales target to reach!

One psychologist and theorist that I find useful in Maslow. He created the hierarchy of needs. The initial (what I called basic or truncated) hierarchy of needs is shown on the right. It is the model most people are familiar with. It is not Maslow's final model!

Maslow formulated a positive account of human behavior which focused on what goes right. He was interested in human potential, and how we fulfill that potential. As he studied more human motivation as reflected in their value and norms and behaviors, he refined his model, first adding transcendence - which I find particularly important, and then cognitive and aesthetic needs, which are also important in more sophisticated societies.

Modern management then proposed a model in which leaders and managers provide motivation to employees. This led to a boom in motivation workshops, most of which are nonsense. It also led to highly damaging practices for organizational and team culture like Management by Objectives, individual annual assessment and salary setting, commission based payment, and short term incentive plans. These often lead to individual behavior at odds with overall team and organizational achievement. Post-modern management proposes another model leading to motivated employees, in which the environment is subtly controlled so that employee motivation is improved. Systems theory describes behavior as an outcome of the system and its forces, as if individuals have limited or no influence.

Always remember 'models are models, reality is different!'. Use models to help you understand, but do not blindly accept they are a 100% description of reality. Models simplify reality so it makes it easier to understand some aspects of reality.

Looking more deeply at Maslow's herarchy of needs model

Initially Maslow saw the hierarchy as a step wise basis for motivation, you need to fulfill lower level needs before fulfilling the higher level needs. However over time this became less formally structural, meaning that you can be motivated by higher level needs without totally fulfilling lower level needs.

Maslow referred to the need for self-actualization as personal growth and discovery, an individual is always striving for more, with some form of finding a meaning to life that is important to them. This striving needs to sit within some context - part in fact of a cultural context. As each individual is unique and their cultural context and situation can vary, the motivation of self-actualization leads individuals in different directions.

For some it can be achieved through creating works of art or literature, this is the most individually recognizable form of self actualization celebrated in society. However for other individuals, this may be realized through sport. I have experienced this learning to snow ski as an adult. Each time I achieved a new level of skiing, whether just not falling over down a piste as a beginner, or the first time a skied an entire piste without stopping as a novice, I had a feeling of euphoria - a 'buzz' of adrenaline.

For many people it is realized within an enterprise setting. When the enterprise is a corporation (profit or not for profit or a charity), people who are strongly motivated at self actualization level (and also somewhat less strongly at esteem level) are typically 'workaholics'.

Maslow in 1962 stated that he believed self-actualization could be measured through the concept of peak experiences. This occurs when a person experiences the world totally for what it is, and there are feelings of euphoria, joy and wonder. It is important to note that self-actualization is a continual process of becoming 'something more' rather than a perfect state one reaches of a 'happily ever after'.

Maslow offers the following description of self-actualization:

'It refers to the person’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially.

The specific form that these needs will take will of course vary greatly from person to person. In one individual it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions' (Maslow, 1943, p. 382–383).

Motivation, Maslow, systems theory and complexity science

Rather than reducing an individuals behavior as being a response in the environment, Maslow adopts a holistic approach to  learning and working. Maslow looks at the entire physical, emotional, social, and intellectual qualities of an individual and how they impact on learning.

This viewpoint is often not seen, or at least not clearly acknowledged by many Systems theorists and Complexity science proponents, who reduce (incorrectly) behavior to being driven by the environment. 

If you take the example of a classroom, students need to feel emotionally and physically safe and accepted within the classroom to progress and reach their full potential. Maslow suggested that students must be shown that they are valued and respected in the classroom and the teacher should create a supportive environment. Students with a low self-esteem will not progress academically at an optimum rate until their self-esteem is strengthened.

The same issues arise in enterprises that follow post-modern management principles in arranging their work environment (e.g. Google, Amazon, Spotify) with the aim to subtly control their employees. This subtle control is not meant to be nefarious, rather it is meant to better enable employees to achieve self-esteem and self actualization. To paraphrase the above text in italics: Employees must be shown that they are valued and respected in the work environment and the leader should create a supportive environment. Employees with a low self-esteem will not progress at an optimum rate until their self-esteem is strengthened so that self actualization drives motivation and behavior.

There are some weaknesses in Maslow's model:

  1. Individualism is assumed to be strong, whereas in some societies the culture favors communitarianism (i.e. society/teams/groups are more important than individuals)
  2. Studies show that the levels are not exclusive and structured as separate levels, at least not always in the order typically shown in the model diagram. 
  3. There is often a blend of needs from different levels that drive motivation.
  4. Transcendence can be generated by love/belonging.

There are some weakness in Systems theory and Complexity science so these should be accepted as  models too!

Inversion of Maslows hierarchy?

Maslow wanted to avoid a focus on psychopathology and what goes wrong with people, so his hierarchy of needs formulated a more positive account of human behavior which focused on what goes right. He was interested in human potential, and how we fulfill that potential.

What would an inversion of Maslow's hierarchy look like?

The diagram to the right is my interpretation of the 6 level model. It has the potential to allow interpretation as not just the failure to achieve a level, but how not meeting needs created motivational and psychological issues.