This is the second of a four part series examining how management theory can be applied to help improve one’s personal productivity.
Abraham Maslow lived from 1908 to 1970. He started studying Law in New York, but soon transferred to University of Wisconsin where he switched to psychology and earned a Ph.D by 1934.
Maslow developed a theory known as the hierarchy of human needs. This hierarchy is usually represented as a pyramid. On the bottom are needs such as food and shelter–the basic needs of the human body. At the top of the pyramid are the categories of esteem with self actualization (reaching your potential) at the top. Here is a representation of the hierarchy:
Maslow said that people start with the lowest level of this hierarchy and that their basic motivation comes from trying to meet their needs sequentially at each level. Any time their needs aren’t being met, their motivation always reverts to meeting the needs at the lowest unfulfilled level. So, someone who doesn’t have food will not be motivated to try to get esteem and respect.
Let’s say we have a man named Smith who finds himself in a new city with no money, no job, and clothes that are barely adequate for the climate. Smith’s first priority is going to be finding a place to stay and getting something to eat. He is also going to start looking for a job in order to meet his physiological needs on an ongoing basis. At this point in his life, he is unlikely to start looking for a girlfriend or try to become a leader in the community. While both fulfill human needs, they aren’t motivating for Smith until he has the lowest needs met.
Smith finds a job at a chemical plant, gets an apartment and buys some decent clothes. He has enough money for food. His physiological needs are being met. Now the second level of needs becomes a priority. At the chemical plant, Smith realizes that he is working with very dangerous chemicals. After witnessing a few accidents, he becomes concerned for his safety. Eventually, Smith finds a job or different position where he feels safe. Maybe he also buys some locks for his door, or gets an apartment in a different neighborhood. While he is concerned with and focused on safety, Smith isn’t going to go out and join the Rotary Club. His need for esteem takes a back seat to his need for safety.
As Smith moves up the pyramid, he gets married, joins some social community organizations, and begins to think about the meaning of life and whether or not he is really achieving his potential.
If, at any point, one of the lower levels is missing, Smith’s focus will change to concentrate on that level. This explains why people often do things that will ruin their reputation (their esteem) when they feel that they aren’t being loved by their spouse. The need for love and to belong overshadows the need for esteem.
When managing people, you use the hierarchy to make sure that they are being rewarded in a way that enables them to meet their needs. When managing yourself, you need to do the same thing.
If you want to be productive, you need to be concentrating primarily on the self actualization tier. Situations where you are constantly needing to deal with lower tiers will sap energy from the upper tiers. Here are a few things that will help do that:
- Don’t over-extend your finances. If you have to worry that, you won’t have the money for housing and food, and you are forcing yourself to deal with the lowest tiers.
- When making decisions, be sure to factor in safety. Don’t buy an incredible apartment in an area of town where you won’t feel safe.
- Find and marry someone who will make a good spouse. While marriage is work and you should never take your spouse for granted, many people put all of their energy into short term relationships to try to fulfill mid-level needs.
- Invest in friendships with people you respect and who respect you. Recognize that you need people to respect you. Deep friendships can provide for the need to be esteemed.
Obviously this isn’t any type of a formula for meeting all of your needs. However, if you recognize that you want the bulk of your energy to go into self actualization, you can make decisions that will help you focus on achieving as much as possible.
Make sure that your work isn’t constantly being interrupted trying to “fix” things on lower levels. If you find yourself constantly worrying about lower tiers, look for ways to change those tiers. Often, these will be lifestyle changes. It may mean downsizing so you aren’t worried about finances. It might mean getting a safer vehicle.
Being highly productive is unlikely to happen by chance. By recognizing your needs and making a conscious effort to meet them proactively, you will be setting yourself up to succeed.
Originally published October 28, 2005.