Why Maslow doesn’t satisfy real change-makers

Young participants on a leadership training programme in a park

Real change-makers at work. If you are in this photo please get in touch!

Why Maslow doesn’t satisfy real change-makers

Years ago, well, towards the end of last century, I ran a training programme for a bunch of environmentalists. They were nearly all young leaders and visionaries who wanted to change the world. And change the world they did, every day, with exceedingly good humour.

Beer, biscuits and extra large baps

Few of the people I worked with were paid, and those who were didn’t earn very much. We lived on beer, biscuits and extra large baps from an Italian café in Kings Cross. And together we were one of the happiest and most purposeful teams I have ever known.

Gap between theory and practice

I spent my time trying to introduce theories and models to the way we worked. The change-makers took great delight in pointing out the gaps between my theories, and how things actually were.

A new model for project management?

I expounded the basics of project management: ‘Initiate, plan, deliver, evaluate’. The change-makers said that while this was a useful model, they had their own model that they preferred: ‘Initiate, plan, deliver, get new job’. And they were right. Most of my friends were employed on short-term contracts. This meant that half way through their contract, they had to start looking for another job.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Visual of Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Another of my pet models that the change-makers up-ended was Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We humans are such a bundle of needs. And Maslow did a great job for employers by working out what they have to do to keep their staff motivated. What he did was identify and prioritise human needs by dropping them into a pyramid or hierarchy. At the base of the pyramid Maslow put human survival needs such as food, clothing, shelter and safety. Once we’ve got this sorted out – job, flat, late opening deli that sells organic produce etc – Maslow says we start to think about friendship, sex and relationships. More than that, we want respect and recognition from our peers. But Maslow realised that this still isn’t enough. Oh no. Even if we have everything else sorted – a job we love, great sex and lots of FaceBook ‘Likes’, we have a gnawing need for personal growth and self-fulfillment. Maslow calls the need at the tip of the pyramid ‘self-actualisation’. Of course this is good for people like me who work in learning and development.

When a house in LA is just not enough

And for some people at least, even if you’ve met every other need, if you haven’t got self-actualisation, you can’t be happy. Take Britt Ekland talking about her relationship with rock musician James McDonnell on BBC R4 Desert Island Discs. “We had a very nice life together. We had a beautiful house in LA, with all the accoutrements, swimming pool and sauna, and the cars, and the dogs, the baby, but it just wasn’t enough. I knew there was something more in me, something more that I wanted to do.” That something sounds very like ‘self-actualisation‘.

Turning Maslow’s pyramid upside down

When I tried to explain Maslow to the change-makers, they listened with curiosity and patience. After some reflection, they explained that this model didn’t really work for them. Maslow’s pyramid of needs was upside down. What motivated the change-makers was making a difference to people and the environment. Everything they did, every day, was about making the world a better place. They were perpetual self-actualisers.

Real change-makers are still not satisfied by basic needs

This all came back to me vividly, recently, when once again, I was trying to explain Maslow to a group of young managers and leaders who work in corporate social responsibility (CSR). I asked the group if there was anything missing from the model in the context that they work. They said ‘Making a difference’. Like the environmentalists nearly 20 years ago, these future leaders want to make the world a better place. Real change-makers are still not motivated by having their basic needs met. What matters to them is changing the world. And, hopefully, provided we all work together and with purpose, there will be enough beer, biscuits and large baps for us all.

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