95% of Managers Follow an Outdated Theory of Motivation

Ford assembly line in the 1940s

What, by a long shot, is the most important motivator for employees at work? Is it money, pressure, or praise?

Typically managers believe the idea that pressure makes diamonds. The thinking is that if you want exceptional performance, you align employee objectives with end-of-year bonuses for hitting certain milestones and then employees will turn up their work ethic to reach them.

Long-held conventional wisdom on management dies hard. That’s because it’s based on gut instinct and superstition — and managerial understanding of motivation is no different. A massive 95% of managers are wrong about what the most powerful motivator for employees at work.

Not only that, they’re thinking about employee motivation fundamentally wrong.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is Outdated

Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs

Seventy years ago, psychologist Abraham Maslow published the Hierarchy of Needs, which has dominated popular thinking on the psychology of human motivation ever since.

At the bottom of the hierarchy, you have your physiological needs: food, water, basic human needs. Building on top of that, you have safety, then love/belonging, then esteem, and finally, self-actualization. The pyramid shows a path of growth in an individual’s motivation as he satisfies one need and moves up to the next level.

Maslow’s hierarchy provides the basis for the kind of managerial thinking that focuses on cash bonuses as a reward for good performance. The rationale is that money is a more fundamental need in the hierarchy than passion or purpose, and therefore you can neglect the latter in favor of the former.

Another example is when managers threaten job security to drive performance. They’re attempting to hit a base need in Maslow’s hierarchy of safety and security to motivate. Seeing such needs as more fundamental in Maslow’s hierarchy than self-esteem and respect means it’s logical that threats and pressure should motivate employees to work harder.

Maslow’s hierarchy caught on immediately in the early 1940s — and perseveres today — because it’s simple to understand. But it’s outdated and facile.

Recent psychological research disproves the conventional wisdom around Maslow’s hierarchy, providing proof that it should be eradicated from how you think about your employees.

The Power of Small Wins

In a wide-ranging study of employee motivation, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer asked hundreds of employees to maintain a diary chronicling their peaks and valleys in motivation at work. Amabile and Kramer eventually analyzed 12,000 diary entries in total and what they discovered was totally contrary to Maslow’s hierarchy and conventional managerial wisdom.

In fact, Amabile and Kramer talked with 600 managers about what they thought was the single-most important motivator for employees at work. A shocking 95% of them got the answer wrong.

It’s not money, safety, security, or pressure that drives employees at work. It’s not the supposedly foundational needs in Maslow’s hierarchy.

The most important motivator for employees at work is what Amabile and Kramer call “the power of small wins“: employees are highly productive and driven to do their best work when they feel as if they’re making progress every day toward a meaningful goal.

* * * * *

In a recent study by psychologist Susan David of highly engaged employees at work, David asked people what made them so engaged and excited about their work.

96% of the employees didn’t mention pay at all. Instead, what David found dovetailed with Amabile and Kramer’s discovery. In describing their motivations at work, highly engaged employees “highlighted feeling autonomous and empowered, and a sense of belonging on their teams.”

If you think that you need this touchy-feely stuff for only your weakest employees, you’re wrong. Non-hierarchical thinking about employee needs is even more important when it comes to your highest performers.

Liked this post? Subscribe to our free newsletter for more great content on productivity, management, and how to work better!

  • Bob Michel

    Thanks for the Interesting article… here are my comments. These employees presumably have their basic needs already met, such as food and water, safety, friendship, and the like. Once these needs are met according to Maslow, motivation occurs through self-actualization, which could be the same as getting things done, or the power of small wins. Check out the HBR archive article: One More Time, How do you Motivate Employees? http://hbr.org/2003/01/one-more-time-how-do-you-motivate-employees/ar/1 where Herzberg shows that “people are motivated by interesting work, challenge, and increasing responsibility. These intrinsic factors answer people’s deep-seated need for growth and achievement.”

    The fact that almost all managers surveyed don’t understand motivation doesn’t mean the old theories are wrong… perhaps managers never really read them, or assume that since they the managers think they are motivated by money, that employees must be too.

    Finally, human motivation is a complex issue and requires complex thinking to analyze.

    • Jim Edmonds

      Agreed. 95% of managers don’t understand Maslow’s theory, or misapply it. The problem isn’t with the theory, it’s with the managers. A variation on the Peter Principle, again.

    • Diane Janovsky

      I agree completely with you Bob and Jim. The theory isn’t wrong. It just may not be applied correctly.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/robert-l-sims/3/b5/714/ Robert L. Sims

    LOWER-ORDER NEEDS
    Many managers are concerned more about his/her own security; therefore, they want to maintain the status quo. Workers allow their values to be trampled. Manage by fear.

    HIGHER-ORDER NEEDS
    Leadership results in trust, loyally, risk taking, innovation, higher productivity, low turnover, low absenteeism, and etc. Recognize workers values. Do not use fear to manage, rather they
    inspire with passion.

  • Anonymous

    This study seems to be based on self reported motivational factors, which could be quite different from the what’s not reported. People are often squeemish to admit that money is their primary motivational factor.

    • leon choo

      I fully subscribe to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as it assists me to better understand my underlying motivational drivers. Once you have satisfied all your wants and needs, self actualisation is about identifying your latent talents and personal gratifications (ie. doing the things you like to do and are good at doing as well as achieving your goals). Just imagine what can be achieved if managers can assist their employees to unleash their latent talents – tremendous success! Hence, chasing after money is no longer considered important as one commentator mentioned, it’s being taken care of and it is no longer a distraction. It is also largely dependent on your position in your organisational hierarchy. At the pinnacle of your career money is usually a secondary consideration, and generally pride and glory take precedence. Successful people like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are those in this league. They have donated all their fortunes to good causes and their everyday focus is about helping the needy or others to achieve their dreams.
      From my experience, Maslow has taught me to plan my career and I am happy with my achievements even though they are miniscule compared to others around me. At the same time incremental achievements are also important as suggested by Walter Chen to keep you engaged and fully motivated in an organisation. Otherwise despondency will prevail if employees do not see any improvements or positive changes. Motivation is like taking good drugs as you need regular doses of encouragement, attention and recognition to keep you wanting to get out of bed to work everyday. In this context management needs to constantly give affirmative and positive feedback to their employees. From my personal experience, I use simple and encouraging words such as “Well done, keep up the good work”, ” You can do it”, etc. They are very powerful motivators if used in the right context and on a regular basis. More importantly it’s free and it costs nothing to management. If your peers and colleagues are doing the same thing it will create positive energies in the organisation. In time a fully energised and motivated work force will be created that will assist an organisation to scale to greater heights.

  • Anon

    Interesting article. This pyramid is the basic of a society and social living, without money you cannot have any of the above in the hierarchy (there could be some exceptions) and without being in this hierarchy we will most probably end in an mental institution as this hierarchy I seen as the stereotype to we we are pushed as a mass into and I could also recognise that 99% of the world is within this hierarchy so that the rest of the 1% can rule them.

  • Annon

    Perhaps you should read Maslow. I think you’ll find that your assumptions are off.

  • Mike Riordan

    I am amazed at the simplistic characterization of Maslow’s theory. Maslow held that we each have a hierarchy and once the lower needs have been met for ourselves, we rise to the higher level needs. Dr. McClelland assumed that in our society the lower needs have been met and focused on the top three needs calling them Power, Achievement, and Affiliation. Herzberg also focused on intrinsic and extrinsic rewards which assumed the worker’s basic needs have been met. However, even when a person is self-actualized and it is lunch time, those pesky lower level needs kick in. Perhaps with the decrease of good paying jobs and the increase of part time minimum wage service jobs, some workers are now distracted constantly by these lower level needs. It is also interesting that McClelland spoke of the two faces of Power, Affiliation, and Achievement- where a manager could focus on self-centered goals or win-win situations. For businesses that desire to empower their workforce and strive for excellence, Maslow and the other theories work just fine. Unfortunately, many businesses concerned about the short term bottom line have opted to promote high turn over to lower wages and keep down health care costs. In such an environment, workers will find it difficult to remain productive. Time in motion studies work fine for menial tasks that will at some time be automated, but humans need to be creative and have some ownership and pride in their work. This requires that basic needs be met which means that management role is mainly to provide goals and then help alleviate fear of job loss, relieve the stress from lacking financial resources to meet basic needs, and to provide constructive feedback to enhance goal attainment. Since the 1980′s many executives have focused on short term goals and their compensation was based on quarterly profits for shareholders. So just like our nation’s infrastructure of roads and bridges have been neglected, so has the American work force.For executives who can measure short term improvements in worker productivity, just remember the Mayo studies that showed that worker’s short term productivity was not a function of the lighting or improvements to the environment because productivity went up after they were taken away.

  • John

    Money is only part of a motivating factor, but not THE motivating factor. It has been my experience that more money does not build loyalty, craftsmanship of work or self worth. You can have the highest paid staff in the industry, but if you do not treat them as vauable they will go and work for less in order to be valued. Often times people will leave a company for more money then realize that the grass is not greener.
    I believe they want to be informed and feel as if they are a part of the process. Part of the success, by celebrating the wins. There is also a reality. Jim Rohn said, “Affirmation without discipline is the beginning of delusion.” People do not typically “like” discipline or accountability, but they do respond well to it if handled correctly. Which will take you as a manager or your company to a new level.
    The Maslow Theory seems to be divided into three categories: Body, mind and spirit or “heart”. I believe there must be a balance and it is just as much the responsibility of the employee as it is the employer. So, in short, building relationships is key.
    Be blessed and Lead on!

  • yolanda pittman

    Money is the motivation that cause people to forget about respect of other. At my job the co-worker are overwork and treat one another very badly. sex harassment, bad communication among the supervisor. They believe that money is the key to everything. When it throw around the supervisor feel that is the greats motivation of all. In the world today they are right with the money is the key to motivation. Thank for the interesting article on Maslow’s concept on motivation that occurs through self actualization.

  • wcraigreed

    I have to agree with Bob Michel’s comments on this. Maslow’s research has not been proven “wrong.” If these employees lost their jobs and became homeless, they would be more motivated by food, shelter, money, etc. than a self-actualized goal. That said, it is sad that most managers do not know how to properly motivate employees, which is why a Gallop poll on 1M workers revealed that the #1 reason why people quit is due to a bad boss. The information delivered here is eye-opening, but what’s the solution? I found one at least: an app called pierapp bad boss that helps solve employment problems
    and maybe even get a raise. It uses neuroscience to ask you questions about
    your personality profile, and your boss’s, and then personalizes an eBook based
    on the combination of the profiles. The approach is different and really works. This might be a good one for managers, too, as it could help them understand their employees’ point of view.

  • JC Wandemberg Ph.D.

    Fred & Merrelyn Emery’s six psychological criteria for efficient work pointed these facts decades ago!
    Cheers,
    JC Wandemberg Ph.D.
    http://www.sustainablesystemsinternational.Org

  • Chris

    This new study does not make Maslow’s obsolete. It reminds us of a methodology that can be used to achieve progress in Maslow’s theory.

  • Rachel Stanley

    Hi, doesn’t the new study actually confirm Maslow – once people have the basic needs, which you can get from a lot of jobs, they are motivated to perform by the higher needs in the pyramid i.e. “highlighted feeling autonomous and empowered, and a sense of belonging.”. I suspect if you asked people in countries with very high unemployment they would have given feedback in line with the more basic needs.

  • SurfCitySCCali

    The fact that this
    study includes 12,000 is imposing. The
    facts here should not be ignored. Positive rather than negative
    reinforcements should be used for a productive work environment. I would hope
    most mangers would take away from this that pressure and threats are
    counterproductive as well as morally corrupt behavior. The UK has known this for some time and I
    would hope we could at least experiment within your organizations a new philosophy
    without feeling threatened to do so.

  • irm

    “96% of the employees didn’t mention pay at all.” Because Americans are trained not to ever discuss this. I assure you 100% of them are thinking about it.

  • Wendy Butler

    I agree with many of the sentiments posted so far. Maslow’s theory was not intended to justify carrot and stick approaches to management. The theory is not the issue, it’s how its being used. Check out this blog: http://www.hrzone.com/blogs/employee-engagement-staff-surveys/how-maslow%E2%80%99s-hierarchy-needs-influences-employee-engagement

  • Anthony Lee

    This was a great read Walter!

  • Bernadette Wilson Conley

    As Bob & Jim mentioned earlier, the problem is less with Maslow’s theory than with managers’ understanding of the theory – especially if we look at this exclusively from the viewpoint of professional and executive level employees.
    For many lower income employees, concerns about not having enough income to cover safe housing, food, transportation to get to and from work, and medical expenses, will absolutely come to play. Many will end up paying a huge price for sacrificing their higher level needs for self-esteem and self-actualization in an attempt to reach for basic security. Providing a supportive environment with small wins is fantastic goal, but it must accompany recognition of employees’ economic realities.

  • TinkerTailor1620

    I hope the problem here is the author’s inability to capture the true meaning of Maslow’s Hierarchy AND of the two research studies he cites, and not problems with the researchers not understanding Maslow or the application of theory in the workplace, or an even broader understanding of motivation theory.

    As others have pointed out quite well, there is nothing wrong with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and you can clearly see the theory hold true just about every day in practically any industrialized society. There are a number of other theories of motivation, too, though, each of them just as valid. They all depend on the situation, the approach, the employees, and the managers, among other factors. In the end, they are only theories of how things normally work – they are not management guides or tools. You can’t manage or lead with a theory, you can only use a theory to inform your leadership or management style or philosophy or practices. In fact, you should have a number of theories in your leadership or management toolbox to use as the situation requires.

    This headline is clearly misleading and the article is simply wrong when it says “Recent psychological research disproves the conventional wisdom around Maslow’s hierarchy, providing proof that it should be eradicated from how you think about your employees.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

    • Murphyboat

      Thank you!
      Yes, it is very disappointing to see this wrongheaded article and misleading headline accumulating hits and momentum through social media (promoted today on Linkedin) — how much conflict and confusion is being generated? As another reader said elsewhere on this site: “you’ve applied Maslow’s theory incorrectly and then you claim the theory itself is incorrect.”

      Indeed: the lack of rigour here is troubling: does no one fact-check anymore? (At least Wikipedia editors eventually do…)

  • TJC

    Walter, I do not believe you proposition that Maslow is outdated is supported by peer reviewed research and it is a little unprofessional to quote your own company in your article. I would support that Maslow’s Hierarchy is not a layer cake but more of a lasagne and that there is not a step lock connection between the fulfilment of the needs of one layer and the ability to progress to the next. Your statements prove Maslow.

    The shock jock headlines do not help with the progression of thinking of new or less confident managers. You come round to the correct conclusions that self actualisation is one of the highest needs of the individual and when these needs are met in the workplace (and elsewhere) employees are more productive BUT the path you chart is tortuous and easily misread.

    Some managers never become leaders for many reasons, wether through their own needs not being met or through never understanding what it is that motivates people to “produce”. As Robert L. Sims says below, “Many managers are concerned more about his/her own security; therefore, they want to maintain the status quo.” To build strength and confidence in these managers so that they can become the motivators of those whom they lead is one of the qualities of senior managers.

  • Carol

    I agree with a lot of what has been said. I’d like to respond to John Smith’s reply in particular – I agree completely that money is not the most important motivating factor.Of course if you are unemployed and can’t pay your bills, then it becomes more important to earn any money at all versus whether your innermost goals are going to be met by a job. However assuming your basic needs are met, then other issues such as fulfillment and being valued start to pay an important role. A pay increase can motivate for a short while, but if you do not feel valued this is short lived.
    Thanks for all your views – interesting discussion!

  • Lydia Hirst

    Having studied a module on motivation as part of my MSc in Organisational Behaviour, I have come away thinking that motivation is highly complex. There are many more theories than Maslow and Herzberg and each one attempts to describe how people are motivated. What the modern psychology shows is that there are a number of factors: individual differences – happily we are all different, we have different personalities and we feel different at different times and in different situations. Some of us are driven by power – hierarchy, position, influence, money – other people are not. Those of us who are ‘achievement motivated’ like the feeling of ‘getting things done’. Then there is goal setting theory – but the goals have to be just right, not too hard and not too easy. What about Porter & Lawler based on Expectancy Theory – what is each person’s effort, performance, reward equation?
    Taking something out of the different theories can be helpful to managers: basic needs – food, health, a roof of one’s head, providing for one’s family – are clearly essential drivers. The question is, what then?
    The challenge for managers is getting to know their staff sufficiently well to understand what motivates them. Let’s not pretend that this is simple and that theory provides a simple answer!

  • Rex Hegen Aii

    Maslow’s theory is not wrong. The understanding and correct application of it by some managers is what stands to be questioned.

    We must always understand that while an employee expects to be recognized and treated with dignity at the place of work, both must be earned.

  • Mike Ziemski

    I have to agree whole-heartedly. And may I push the envelope a little further regarding the “meaningful goal” and the “part of the team” mindset.

    It’s been a long-held belief that one should set goals, then share them with others so that your network can help you achieve those goals. Unfortunately, it’s been discovered that when that happens, the brain functions as if the goal has already been met, and therefore, less likely to be achieved.

    Using personal experience, the one time I met and exceeded my goal was when someone else set it for me, then coached me to get there. It was an incredible differentiation of managerial style, but one that I had experience with – as the coach.

    In my previous position, I worked with a number of faith-based schools that we’re experiencing declining enrollment. Leaders would set their enrollment goals, and then be disappointed when they weren’t achieved, since tuition from enrollment is the main source of revenue for them.

    After I developed and tested the Enrollment Estimator (TM) to incorporate predictive analysis into their planning, and well as follow-up methodology as I has created for Saturn sales consultants, the third element was to set their enrollment goal for them. This gave the schools a framework for success rather rather than just “hoping” they’d meet their goals.

    What happened? As a group, total enrollment was predicted to be 3,464 students. The official figure that year was 3,469. Some schools exceeded their individual goal, while some fell short. But the process provided a success that could be celebrated, which was seen as a small “win.” If this could happen, then other concerns could be overcome as well.

  • http://bearpartners.com Jeff Bear

    When managers start asking, “how can we best inspire employees,” rather than looking for new ways to motivate employees — that’s when the results will really start to shift.

  • http://www.bigbluegumball.com Todd Cherches

    Glad to see so many colleagues rising in defense of Maslow with strong and intelligent arguments! I agree 100% that Maslow’s classic Hierarchy is still as relevant today as ever. When it comes to what motivates people, it’s not “either-or,” but “and.” So Maslow’s model is still relevant and useful, as is Herzberg’s, and McGregor’s, and McClelland’s, as well as Amabile’s new addition of the Progress Principle.

    I would also add, from his book, Drive, Dan Pink’s three key factors: Autonomy, Mastery, & Purpose. Regarding money, Dan Pink put it well when he said that people need to make enough to take money off the table as a distraction, to allow them to focus on performance and productivity. (BTW, if you’ve never seen the RSA animated video version, I highly recommend it!: http://vimeo.com/15488784)

    So, getting back to Maslow, if you’re not making enough to cover your foundational Survival needs, and don’t have job Security, then it makes it very difficult to care about the higher-level needs. Ask anyone who’s been laid off, and I think they will verify that.

    BTW, regarding the title of the post, does anyone really think that 95% of managers have ever even HEARD of Maslow? I, for one, don’t…and that’s the unfortunate part.

  • Marty Jamieson

    The theory is sound.

    In this decade of plenty, younger, higher educated workers are already several layers up the ladder.

    Also, different industries and skill required positions fit quite well.

    Motivation should be viewed against the layers for the industry, position requirements, level of education possessed AND required.

    Finally, as global corporations have a huge basket of candidates to choose from, there is an intentional lowering of necessary employee insurance paid, retirement contributions, and insensitive management adopted. Loyalty is not rewarded in larger faceless corporations.

    Turnover of intelligent younger employees is a direct result of poor, short term Human Resource administration due to limited leadership perception for cost management.

  • disqus_YGTxTFsByt

    I would argue most Managers are in Esteem and Self actualization phase. Money ofcourse is not the single most influencing factor for them at that stage. The product of work becomes more determining factor, cause you know it will bring money in long run. There is also a shift in thought process once you aren’t fighting for those basic needs.

  • Leigh North

    Very surprised by high number of managers not understanding the motivations of their staff members. Like Bob has stated below I would have to assume that those staff members questioned, already have their basic need met. The issue here is that mangers are failing to understand what motivates their staff rather than following any particular theory. Although I do agree that Maslows theory is somewhat outdated it does still have credence in today’s working world. Today people and society are much more complex that in 1943 when this theory was written; basic needs are much more of a human right nowadays rather than an aspiration as it was back then.