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64. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and small business

Abraham Maslow published his theory in 1943 and it has been influential ever since. He believed a lot of psychological theory had been based on people with significant problems, so he studied people who were not clearly in difficulties, and came to a different perspective on motivation in particular. The theory is represnted as a pyramid with 5 layers, and suggests that, until the lower layers are satisfied, it is not possible to focus on the higher ones.

The lowest layer is PHYSIOLOGICAL needs: to breathe, food, water, shelter, sleep, sex. When these are satisfied, the next motivational level is SECURITY whether that is personal safety, security of employment or health. Above this are SOCIAL needs, which are about belonging to a social unit or group: family, team etc. Above this are ESTEEM needs, which are about how the individual sees themself against their society and hence the view they believe society, their peers etc have of them – the need to be valued. And at the top of the hierarchy is SELF-ACTUALISATION, which is about self-fulfillment rather than the perception of others. This may come from the satisfaction of growing as a human being, in knowledge or wisdom or spiritual growth. It probably applies to only a few per cent of the population.

Some people have argued with the rigid concept of the hierarchy (if it were so, then no one would buy a fast car before they had full pension provision and that clearly is not the case!) but at the same time, you would not try to sell a drowning man a new car, so the hierarchy has some validity of precedence. Herzberg’s motivators and hygiene factors (see previous blogs) are based on the hierarchy.

Organisational thinking often looks at the hierarchy concept both from the point of view of staff and of customers. But what of the small business?

Well first look at your own motivation. Assuming you have a roof over your head, are you in business for security reasons (perhaps several times redundant and see this as a greater guarantee of future income) or for social reasons, to be part of the business community or your workplace team? Or for reasons of esteem, to be seen as the Managing Director, the leader of your own business, a pillar of the business community, or perhaps to earn lots of money and be visibly successful? Or are you one of the small group who find running a business a learning process, a source of personal development, and a great source of personal satisfaction in itself? Whichever is true for you, it is possible to see how, depending on your motivation, you would behave differently in certain circumstances.

And of course the same is true of your customers and your staff and all other stakeholders. For example, you may have a person marked out for a great promotion which will involve more responsibility, time and perhaps travel. But if that person is motivated more by the desire to spend time with family or perhaps sports commitments (social needs) than by money of status (self-esteem) then they are unlikley to respond in the way you would hope. And they may even then be tempted to move in if they believe that they are now poorly regarded by you.

So Maslow’s hierarchy can be used to focus on what motivates your clients (or at  least the majority or best ones) for your marketing, and what your key staff. It serves as a good discipline in both your marketing activities and personnel activities to do the appropriate research, because if you cannot answer that question, then you are going to be less effective than you could be – but it is often relatively easy to get feed back from customers and, in the case of small businesses, from individual staff to avoid getting it wrong. So what have you got to lose?