Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs may be less popular than the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) – but it is much more meaningful and powerful as a performance enhancement instrument.
Although created for different purposes, the two instruments have unexpected similarities. Both instruments had their first “public appearance” in the 1940s and both were conceived by people interested in Carl Jung’s teachings. Both are arguably the most recognizable instruments related to social psychology and both are expected to improve team performance and business efficiency as a result.
However, the similarity ends there.
Abraham Harold Maslow was an academic. His Theory of Human Motivation was based on his personal observations. He was interested in seeing patterns and connecting dots. He did not care much about the lack of empirical proof but just shared his findings with the world. Like most bright scientists, Maslow was a very poor salesman.
Like most bright scientists, Maslow was a very poor salesman.
(Indeed, even Peter Drucker noted that. In his letter to Maslow, written in 1966, Drucker expressed his gratitude for what he had learned from Maslow’s books – but could not help mentioning that the title of Maslow’s seminal book The Eupsychian Management was hard to tolerate. When the book was reprinted after Maslow’s death, the title was changed to Maslow on Management, but no doubt the original title put many readers off.)
Although Maslow never actually represented his theory as a pyramid, it may be due to this ubiquitous multicolored triangle that his model has stood the test of time. If not for the iconic pyramid that we all inevitably remember whenever someone mentions “Maslow,” his great discovery could have been eclipsed by similar theories created in the 20th century, and entirely forgotten.
Although Maslow never represented his theory as a pyramid, it may be due to this multicolored triangle that his model has stood the test of time.
Isabelle Briggs Meyers, the driver behind the MBTI test, was not a scientist, but rather a housewife. Her tool was a simplified derivative of Carl Jung’s categories described in his book Psychological Types. She was in love with “her baby” (as she called her creation) and was passionately convinced of its validity. Through her effort and dedication, the MBTI has become arguably the most popular “personality sorter” of all time, and by far the most successful financially. The simplistic concept, although not intentionally, proved to be a winning one: It was consistently positive and easy to digest, providing a guaranteed reassurance of what many laypeople want to hear.
In the early 2000s, most of the Fortune 100 companies used the MBTI tool, with 2.5 million people taking the test every year. Though research shows that at least three-quarters of test takers end up with a different personality type each time they re-take the test, and there was no scientific base behind it, millions of cult-like followers around the world remain very confident and enthusiastic about this tool – as had Isabel herself throughout her life.
One may remark here that Maslow’s theory, likewise, has been heavily criticized for the lack of empirical support. The real situation with the hierarchy of needs is different though. In the case of MBTI, the research confirmed the lack of scientific foundation and very low reproducibility of the results, while most of the publicly available research data came from MBTI proponents. In Maslow’s case, research done by independent scientists has produced fairly good results. Perhaps one of the problems that motivation researchers face is that they need to evaluate and measure what has so far been unmeasurable.
One of the problems that motivation researchers face is that they need to evaluate and measure what has so far been unmeasurable.
A more recent idea complements and expands Maslow’s theory of human motivation. It is The Theory of Basic Human Values developed by the social psychologist Shalom Schwartz in the 1990s. (Values and needs often have only a semantic difference and can be used interchangeably.) Schwartz did not base his conclusions on Maslow’s theory, but he would not deny its significance either. Schwartz’s extensive cross-cultural research data indirectly confirms Maslow’s hierarchy that otherwise was attributed by his opponents to Maslow’s own “U.S. middle-class culture pattern” thereby ignoring cross-cultural differences – another popular line of unfair attacks on Maslow’s model.
While the pyramid helped to etch the hierarchy of needs in our collective brain, it has also been the unexpected source of massive criticism that often comes from people who have not read the original theory by Maslow. Indeed, the pyramid image creates a false impression of Maslow’s idea. He never implied that the lower-level needs must be completely satisfied before the assent to the next “step” becomes possible. On the contrary, Maslow believed that most people have partially satisfied and partially unsatisfied needs at any time, it is just that their relative “weight” may change when another need emerges.
While the pyramid helped to etch the hierarchy of human needs in our collective brain, it has also been the source of massive criticism coming from people who have not read the original theory.
Here, again, Schwartz’s model may be useful. Unlike Maslow, Schwartz arranged basic human values in a circle, thus making them all equal a priori.
To understand Maslow’s model, you may compare it with the triune brain model of the evolution of the mammalian brain that you may recall from school. Its idea is relatively simple. The human brain has evolved from the reptilian brain (in charge of instincts) through the limbic brain (emotions) to the neocortex (rational thinking). The idea is that our brain, allegedly the most evolved among mammals, has most of its volume taken by the neocortex, while other, more primitive, sections are still there. By all means, even the most evolved human will not survive without the reptilian brain. In the same way, even the most self-actualized person will not survive without the satisfaction of basic needs, whatever they may tell you.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has become more popular in the last decade or so, and now some MBTI proponents attempt to combine the two instruments. This does not make much sense and produces no practical result. Although both are referred to as performance enhancement instruments, the output of the MBTI is unclear. Even if we discount its remarkable instability and inefficiency in predicting performance, the MBTI has only two relatively useful outputs: it makes people feel better and can be a good conversation starter. Even Jung himself would consider it unthinkable to package all the varieties of humans into sixteen categories. And once you have your team packaged, what does it tell you? How is it related to human needs and values?
Nobody could give me a meaningful answer. Probably not even Isabel Myers herself. She reportedly once admitted that she would not have married her husband if she had known his type beforehand…
Isabel Myers herself reportedly admitted that she would not have married her husband if she had known his MBTI type beforehand…
I could only suggest that both instruments are very “positive,” in line with the benevolent predisposition of their creators. Maslow’s theory is future-oriented and assumes that people around us are psychologically healthy, able, and willing to evolve. The MBTI is a good therapeutic aide that makes people feel better.
The MBTI is a good therapeutic aide that makes people feel better.
Maslow’s Motivation Theory, preferably in combination with Schwartz’s Basic Human Values circumplex, allows “mapping” the team members so that their alignment – inside the team and with the organization at large – is evident. Of course, you must establish and agree upon the purpose and values beforehand. My practical experience confirms that highly congruent teams have much higher levels of engagement and, as a result, are much more productive.
This may sound like a modern utopia – but it is no longer the case today. While Maslow’s theory has been considered untestable to measure in our very materialistic society, measuring and monitoring team alignment as a leading KPI is becoming the standard in the knowledge economy.
Team alignment will be a standard leading KPI in the knowledge economy.