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Abraham Maslow’s Need hierarchy theory and its criticism


Posted Date: 30-Mar-2012  Last Updated:   Category: General    
Author: Member Level: Gold    Points: 45


Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of need theory is one of the early theories on motivation. The following article gives information about this theory, various types of needs it mentions and finally the criticism that this theory has faced.



Abraham Maslow's Need hierarchy theory is one of the most well-known theories of motivation. This theory falls under content theories of motivation as it focuses on the factors that cause people to put in efforts in their work. Here that factor is various needs associated with a person. People are motivated to fulfill their needs. According to Maslow, a person's motivational needs could be arranged in a hierarchical manner. Now, no need is ever fully gratified, but a significantly satisfied need no longer motivates. So, once a given level of need is satisfied the next higher level of need has to be activated in order to motivate the individual. So, as a need becomes significantly satisfied, the next need becomes dominant i.e. that particular need becomes the priority. So, if you want to motivate someone, you need to ascertain or understand at what level of the hierarchy of needs that person is currently on and then try to satisfy the needs at or above that level. One important thing to note is that Maslow did not develop this theory from the perspective of organizational behavior, but sometime later it was adopted into organizations as well as management institutes curriculums and since then it has become one of the most important theories of motivation in organizational behavior. Here I am discussing this theory in context of that only.

According to this theory, within every human being there exists a hierarchy of 5 needs. These are activated in order from the lowest level to the highest level.
The 5 needs are as follows –

1. Physiological needs – These are the lowest-order needs and include bodily needs like hunger, thirst, sex, etc. Most of these bodily needs can be satisfied through money. So, providing the employees with money in form of salary and wages to help them fulfill their physiological needs is the most basic thing that companies do.

2. Safety needs – By safety needs Maslow meant security and protection from physical and emotional harm. In general, it is the need for a secure environment. Once a person's physiological needs are taken care of, he/she becomes concerned about physical and psychological safety. So, at the work place, an employee would like to work in an environment that is physically safe and secure i.e. free from threats of harm. Security and fire alarms as well as other types of protection in place are the organization's ways of fulfilling physical safety needs of the employees.

An organization also needs to take care of psychological safety of their employees. It does so by offering health and disability insurance and assuring them that they will not be harmed financially in case of illness or any accident.

3. Social needs – Man is a social animal. He wishes to have friends and other social connections, and to be loved and accepted by other people. Social needs refer to needs like affection, belongingness, friendship etc. Organizations can help fulfill this kind of need by organizing different team events aimed at developing a fondness and friendliness among different employees.

4. Esteem needs – Every person wants to achieve success and savour it. Esteem needs refers to the needs to achieve success and have others recognize our accomplishments. It is concerned with the need to develop self-respect and to gain the approval of others. Esteem needs are of two types - internal esteem factors are self-respect, autonomy, achievement while external esteem factors are status, recognition and attention. Awarding bonus on achievements is one of the many ways through organization fulfill esteem needs of its employees.

5. Self-actualization – The last need, which lies at the top of the hierarchy, is self-actualization. It refers to the need to discover who we are and to develop ourselves to the fullest. It talks about the potential drive to become what one is capable of becoming. Self-actualized people perform with their utmost potential and are tremendously valuable assets for their organization. For this reason, companies are interested in paving the way for their employees to become self-actualized by meeting their lower order needs.


The 3 lowest needs are also known as deficiency needs. Unless these needs are satisfied, an individual will fail to develop into a healthy person, both physically and psychologically. Last two needs are called growth needs as satisfaction of these needs help a person grow and develop as a human being.

Criticism of Abraham Maslow's Need hierarchy theory


Maslow's theory has been subjected to a lot of criticism. Few important points in this regard are as follows-

1. Empirical research doesn't validate this theory.

2. The assertion that there are only 5 needs and that they are activated in a specific order have found limited support with the researchers and psychologists.

3. Maslow's model is much too rigid to explain the dynamic and unstable characteristic of employ needs.

4. Researchers have found that individual needs do not cluster neatly around the 5 types described in the theory. Also substantial satisfaction of one need level doesn't necessarily lead to the next higher need level.

5. The needs hierarchy is based on US cultural values which is basically individualistic. Outside USA, this theory has found little support. In countries such as China, Japan and Korea, which have collectivist cultures, belonging and security are significantly more important than growth or self-actualization. Therefore, although the needs that Maslow identified may be universal, the logic or sequence of the hierarchy differs from culture to culture.

6. Needs other than those identified by Maslow also motivate people – for e.g. spiritual needs.

7. People can also operate on more than one needs level simultaneously or may move to a lower level of needs if their life circumstances change. For e.g., during recession, when many jobs were cut, suddenly lower order needs became dominant over higher order needs.

In spite of so much criticism, Maslow's need hierarchy theory continues to be popular, perhaps due to its simplicity and ease of application.


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