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Maslow is Wrong

Today, Graham is getting slightly controversial and discussing Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid) and its relevance to coaching.



Today, I'm going to be slightly controversial, slightly provocative. I want to talk about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and the fact that as a coach, I think there are certain aspects of it that are wrong.

I'll start by recapping his theory. Broadly speaking, it's difficult to argue with the generalisation of the theory, but there are aspects of it, that I think are not true. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is demonstrated by a pyramid.

At the bottom of the pyramid are the physiological needs; everybody needs to be watered, and they need to have their bodily functions dealt with, just to be in existence. Once those needs are met, they can move up to what's described as safety, which is really the security and health of the body safety in terms of being part of a family and so on that you need to feel safe.

Once you've got your physiological needs; you're fed and watered, and then you're in a safe physical space and you are well, you can then move on to what's called Love and Belonging, which is about being part of a family, being with friends and having a sense of community. Once you've moved past that, you go into the higher levels of esteem and this is about self-respect, respect for others and feeling that you are worthy.

You can see that this mirrors people's careers, you can see that you start off on very low pay, you progress, train, learn, get promoted, you get to another level and so on and so on. Then you get to a point of a managerial position or senior managerial position where you are confident in what you do, and you have the confidence of other people around you, you have that respect and so on, and you can see how that's very logical and difficult to argue with.

Then the top of the pyramid is the bit about self-actualisation, which is a really major piece of the theory, about becoming the person you truly want to be. You're achieving the things that really matter to you perhaps at a spiritual level or a very inner level. It's about creativity, morality, and all of those deeper, meaningful emotions and senses.

This is the piece where I think Maslow's wrong. This is the piece where I think self-actualisation doesn't have to be the icing on the cake or the top of the pyramid. It can be pretty much any time. Once you've got past the physiological needs. Once you've got past the fed and watered and you know, not scrounging around and hunting and killing just to survive. Once you got past that self-actualisation can come in at any time. You can want to be whoever you want to be. You can aspire to achieve whatever you want to achieve. You can believe in and be hopeful of whatever it is you want to at any level at that.

If you think about that in the workplace, for example, people's attitude to work is not driven by their seniority in the business – work doesn't work like that. You can feel a total commitment to the sense of purpose of the organisation, whether you are a receptionist or a cleaner, or you are the chairman of the board. You can really aspire to develop and be part of a team and help that team grow and achieve all of its goals without being the team leader, the team captain, or the most senior person in the group. Self-actualisation, therefore, is achievable, entirely dependent on the person; whenever, wherever they choose to do it.

It's that perspective that I've seen as a coach. I don't coach only very senior people because they're the only people capable of change, the only people capable of understanding what it is they want to be and do, or that there's a greater sense of purpose to life - it's just not true. I do typically spend more time with those people because they're typically the people that are more valued in the organisations prepared to invest in them, but that doesn't mean that the junior people aren't equally committed and engaged in the organisation.

There are some well-worn examples that people have used over the years to demonstrate this; you could ask a bricklayer ‘What are you doing?’ and they might say ‘I'm laying bricks’. You could ask another bricklayer ‘What are you doing?’ and they might say ‘I'm building a wall’. You could ask another bricklayer ‘What are you doing?’ and they might say ‘I'm building a cathedral’. They're all doing the same job, they’ve just got a different perspective on what they're doing and what it means.

If you develop that further, you could get into things like the NHS. Clearly, a surgeon, a doctor, or a senior nurse may have a whole sense of vocation around what they're doing, but so might the porter, so might the cleaner, and so might the secretary in the office. They'll all believe that what they're doing is making the NHS work, which has a greater sense of purpose and greater meaning, giving that sense of purpose and meaning to their work, to their work life, that part of their lives that they spend a lot of time in.

So, the controversy, the provocative nature of what I am trying to say is that Maslow is wrong. I don't believe self-actualisation is the cherry on the top. I don't believe it's at the top of the pyramid. I think it's available any time, as long as you've got to a point where you are fed and watered and in a place of safety so that you are effectively in a civilised environment, and you can think about your life, your role, what you want, who you want to be and what your values are and how important this is to you and how you're going to grow and be that person.

Self-actualisation is at the core of what a coach does. A coach is there to help people achieve the things they want to achieve; to be the person they want to be. By doing it in that sense, with that open-mindedness, you don't get hung up on thinking ‘I can only deal with very senior people’ because that's just not right.


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