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.]