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Maslow’s inverted pyramid: a reflection on human motivation at work


In 1943 the psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a theory about the origins of human motivation. There he classified the needs hierarchically using a geometric figure known as Maslow’s Pyramid.

From the base up to its apex Maslow grouped them into: basic or physiological, safety, love or belonging, esteem and self-actualization.

In his theory he states that the passage to a superior need requires that the previous has been satisfied. It starts from the base and it shifts to the rest. It happens to be logical, since it is difficult to think that a person may aim for success if he doesn’t have where to live.

The famous pyramid mainly used by marketing –up to nowadays-, can contribute with a different point of view of the needs of the people of the world of work.

What motivates the collaborators at their work?

Following Maslow’s formulation, we may answer that they are mainly motivated by money, since it is linked with the basic needs. However, we are going to set some changes to the original premise: we are going to turn the pyramid upside-down.

Why did we turn the pyramid upside down?

Because, on the working field and for the new generations, money –need for security- is not what matters to remain at a steady job. Though, beyond doubt, the economic factor is highly important, what makes a job sustainable is that people meet their self-actualization needs: creativity and problem solving aptitudes. This is possible if the finished tasks are given a sense, that is why it doesn’t matter how high the salary is if there isn’t a reason why. Now back to the pyramid, self-actualization is related to self-esteem, this is, with the image that each one has of him or herself, and who doesn’t like to feel proud for his or her job?

Besides economical reward, the work pays a wage that enhances, or generates a debt in, the self-esteem, which is not money compensation. Here we find one of the greatest boss’ challenges: giving meaning to the collaborator’s work to avoid “automation”. The way to do it is valuing the individual contributions, especially in the case of repetitive activities such as those done at the call center.

Now back to the pyramid order, the following need is the esteem: respect and success, of course intimately related to self-esteem. Besides giving sense to the activities it matters that those who did them receive some credit (public or individual), a positive feedback, which is another of the boss’ challenges.

In this way a circle of trust is generated, which turns our attention to the following need: belonging, referred to the feeling of belonging and comradeship. Feeling part of a work group that shows recognition turns out to be a natural consequence. We notice that all needs are interrelated, that is why we talk about a system and not about a structure.

Finally, we reached the pyramid base, which has become the axis. Is there a salary that compensates the dissatisfaction aroused by the self-actualization need?

In my opinion, that position is not sustainable over time. However, I consider it important, that people are able to develop in a field where they have to do their best at their task which: provides sense and recognition, and allows them to be part of a group or community.

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