Who Built Maslow’s Pyramid? Not Maslow.

May 22, 2018 in Uncategorized, industrial organizational psychology
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid

The Pyramid commonly used to illustrate Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The 3-minute video below summarizes an article — Who Built Maslow’s Pyramid? A History of the Creation of Management Studies’ Most Famous Symbol and Its Implications for Management Education — to be published in the  journal, Learning and Education.

The article argues that Maslow never conceptualized the pyramid commonly used to illustrate his Hierarchy of Needs. The figure was developed by a consultant seeking to simplify Maslow’s theory for corporate clients, and it distorted Maslow’s work in the process.

Maslow’s theory aside, we can find a broader learning here. The phrases “some consultant,” “distorted,” and “overly simplistic,” remind me that consultants and other practitioners do, indeed, habitually oversimplify and distort theories of employee wellbeing.

In the employee benefits and wellness spheres, a couple of examples of oversimplification come to mind:

  1. Consultants and other practitioners increasingly cite Self-Determination Theory, which says that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are prerequisites for human flourishing. But many present the theory as a simple explanation of behavioral motivation and are hard-pressed to explain what relatedness is or how it fits in.
  2. Behavioral economics is a trendy framework consistently misrepresented. Wellness consultants have described it as a theory of intrinsic motivation. Behavioral economists, however, will assert that there is no such thing as intrinsic motivation. If behavioral economics had to be bucketed as one or the other, it could only be considered — with its warm embrace of incentives and other manipulative techniques — a framework for extrinsic motivation.

Scholars resent such oversimplification. But I’d be cautious about one-sidedly indicting consultants.

Perhaps scholars should endeavor to communicate their theories and findings in a manner more accessible to lay practitioners. Were relatedness and competence really the best terms to communicate what’s intended in Self-Determination Theory? Indeed, delve into the details of Self-Determination Theory, and you’re likely to find it nearly incomprehensible to non-psychologists. The theory picked up steam outside psychology circles mostly after Daniel Pink simplified it in his bestseller, Drive.

Similarly, behavioral economics has repeatedly been distorted by TED-talk superstars who have little or no training in either behavior, economics, or any combination of the two.

We wellness professionals would benefit by reading fewer bestsellers and more journal articles. I might also suggest that scholars — in order to learn how to reach an audience of practitioners with minimal distortion before TED talkers and bestselling authors pull the rug out from under them — study fewer journal articles and more bestsellers.

Perhaps a consultant would not have created Maslow’s pyramid, and it would not have taken hold to the extent it has, if Maslow or another scholar had more effectively illustrated his ideas.

[Hat tip to Kuldeep Singh, who shared the “Who Built Maslow’s Pyramid” article on LinkedIn, and Rob Briner, who shared the video in the lively discussion that ensued. This blog post is adapted from comments I contributed to that discussion.]

Japan Gets Real About Workplace Stress

May 10, 2018 in Stress

Job Stress

In 2015, Japan passed a law requiring businesses with 50 or more employees to offer workers an annual assessment — the “Stress Check” — which measures risk of stress and other mental health concerns based on three domains:

  • Psychosocial and other stressors in the work environment, including job demands, job control (autonomy), work intensity, and sense of purpose.
  • Mental and physical symptoms of stress like irritability, exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, musculoskeletal discomfort, difficulty sleeping.
  • Social support, including connection with supervisors, co-workers, and loved ones.

The Japanese government recommends their 57-question assessment tool, the Brief Job Stress Questionnaire (BJSQ). Take a look at the English version here. Employers can use alternative questionnaires, but they’re required to include the same domains — workplace stressors, symptoms, and support.

The law — designed to help prevent stress in response to an epidemic of stress-related death and disease — mandates that

  • Employees are given the results of their Stress Check.
  • Employees found to be at high-risk for potentially harmful stress are referred to a physician.
  • Employers modify stressful work conditions (such as schedules, work location, or responsibilities) in collaboration with high-risk employees’ physicians.
Japan Stress Check program flow

Stress Check process (click to enlarge)

The law encourages employers to improve the workplace environment based on analysis of their group’s data. Specific interventions aren’t prescribed, although models and case studies are available.

The law prohibits release of employees’ data to employers without the employee’s permission, and it prohibits discrimination based on Stress Check participation or results. Though employers are required to offer the Stress Check, workers aren’t required to participate.

No one’s advocating a program like this outside Japan, but it should evoke dialog among wellbeing professionals and enlighten how we view job stress.

  • Japan — like much of Europe, Canada, and the US’s NIOSH — recognizes that job stress is rooted in workplace risk factors: lack of autonomy, role ambiguity, job insecurity, lack of social support, excessive demands, harsh environments, inadequate rewards, work/life conflict, and unfair treatment.

The Stress Check questionnaire draws on a growing body of evidence showing that it does, indeed, identify people who are at high risk of mental health-related disability.

As for intervention… There’s a lot of experimentation to be done before we can definitively say what works. To date, evidence supports organizational change more than personal interventions to prevent worker stress.

Recently, a small initial study failed to demonstrate positive outcomes for either the questionnaire alone or for workplace interventions alone. However, the researchers reported:

Combining the annual stress survey with improvement in the psychosocial work environment can effectively reduce psychological distress.

Like it or hate it, the Stress Check program is innovative. We’re reminded that innovation is not always technology driven. We need innovators to follow Japan’s example and take a fresh look at our job stress paradigms.