Maslow and the Learning Organization

By Shawn P. Quigley

Maslow and Motivation

In our previous discussions we have referred to Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation (Hierarchy of Needs) and how this relates to work place motivation. To best continue our discussion we must first review some of the tenets of Maslow’s theory in more detail and dispel the misconception that Maslow set the hierarchy in the form of a triangle to convey that one need must be fully satisfied before another can become predominate or pre-potent as coined by Maslow in his 1943 paper published in the Psychological Review. (Maslow, 1943) Maslow discusses that if the individual feels a need more than another it will be the main driver and this can only be determined by that individual.

Relation of Needs

In his article Maslow states that there are at least five goals or basic needs: Physiological, Safety, Love, Esteem, and Self-actualization. (Maslow, 1943) However, he also states that these are only part of what determines the behavior of individuals. There are biological, cultural, and situational drivers as well. Maslow further stated that the order in which these basic needs are structured is determined by the individual, their experiences, and the level of prepotency assigned by the individual. The example he provided was that of an individual that has never felt hungry would not have that as a physiological motivator or a predominate need. And thus that basic need would not come into play for the individual in question.

 Application of Theory

At this point you are probably asking, “How this relates to work place motivation?” Using the basic needs as a guide we can see how being involved with an organization or group could provide a feeling of safety, self-esteem, and belonging; a lower grouping for both esteem and love. On the same hand it could detract from these needs if the environment provided is unsafe, degrading, and lacking a sense of unity or belonging. Many organizations strive to provide a safe work environment, but there is more to safety; as a basic need, than just not having a potentially hazardous environment. In fact there are numerous jobs that are not safe, yet the individual feels this need is met through its potency compared to other needs. Having provided is as an example we can surmise that the situation and/or environment plays a major role in what needs the individual sees as predominate and the only way for supervisory or management personnel to know this re-sequencing of the individual’s needs is through positive interaction.

Interpretation of Needs

Now we should discuss what positive interaction is and some common short comings of supervisors and management in this area. It is not uncommon for supervisors and managers to assume that they have determined the underlying motivators; needs, of their people through mere observation. To address this issue we will again look to something Maslow said, “The person who thinks he is hungry may actually be seeking more for comfort.” (Maslow, 1943) If an individual state that they are hungry and supervisor may assume that is their need the true point may be being missed. Probably the most misinterpreted signal is that of monetary gain because determining what need it actually equates to can be exceptionally difficult and it more than likely relates to several needs at the same time. However, only one need usually has predominance at any given time. The key in that sentence is “at a time” because the situation can and most likely does change which need takes led. An example of this would be if an individual is asking for more money, but their actual need is esteem it could possibly be satisfied through being offered a position as team leader or recognition for their abilities and contribution to the organization. Again the need of the individual asking for more money could be something totally different, such as safety. The only way to determine the actual need in any situation is through open and honest dialogue; the open Mental Model.

Lack of Dynamic Tension

As with most things if it were this simple everyone would be doing it, but there is more. If needs are constantly satisfied and the individual develops a sense of being owed this satisfaction or become disenchanted due to a lack of tension between actual and desired states they can no longer be used as motivators and when used produce only negative connotations for both the individual and the organization. There needs to be some form of tension between the actual and desired state; tension, for a need to take predominance. It is this predominance that makes the need hold value to the individual and its’ use as a motivator. This is not to say that organizations should not attempt to satisfied their employees’ needs, but to say that they must constantly show them how doing what is needed for the organization will assist them in maintaining their base needs and working on those higher order needs that can rarely be satisfied, such as self-actualization: Personal Mastery.


In summary we have reviewed Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation (Theory of Needs), discussed how needs can be situational, what allows and need to be a motivator or a detractor, and related this discussion to two of the principles of the Learning Organization. It is the basic understanding of these principles and more that will enable an organization, project, and/or team to meet their goals while helping the individuals that make them up to obtain their needs and develop.


Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review(50), 370 – 396.

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