Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: still relevant in 2020?

You may have heard of Maslow. You may even be a fan. Or you may switch off the moment any psychologist starts spouting theory…

By: James Blair on

Who and what…?

Google-search “Maslow” or his “hierarchy of needs”, and you’ll probably be presented with a brightly coloured pyramid. But what does it mean and can it really still be relevant when this particular thinker died half a century ago?

If you’re unaware, and in brief summary, Maslow theorised that human beings are motivated by the needs in their lives and that these needs can be organised into five tidy categories, each one coming into play when the previous one is fulfilled.

Starting with the most fundamental needs, we begin with our PHYSIOLOGICAL NEEDS. These include air, food, water, sleep and shelter. All pretty basic but inarguably important no matter who or where in the world we are, or what we do.

Maslow formulated that these need to be fulfilled before we can focus on the next tier. (I can’t argue argue with that - I struggle to focus on anything when I’m hungry, and don’t expect me to be remotely insightful or logical when I’m over-tired!)

Once we have fulfilled these needs, we will start to focus on our SAFETY NEEDS. Put simply: our undeniable need to feel safe and secure. As children, this is probably just being physically close to Mum, Dad or our favourite auntie. Later in life, these will likely include personal security, employment and health.

Got those sorted? Great! In that case, if Maslow is right, we will start to focus on our need for LOVE AND BELONGING - family, friendships, relationships, romance and the wider sense of connection and belonging. We humans are social animals, after all. (Though I confess to having an ex who challenges that theory!)

After that, comes our ESTEEM, including self-esteem, self-respect and confidence. Maslow claimed that these needs include two components. The first is feeling good about ourselves. The second is feeling valued by others, and feeling that our actions and achievements are being recognised by other people.

Done something worthwhile or impressive? Want others to tell you how great you are? Yep, me too!

And finally, at the top of that brightly coloured pyramid is something called SELF-ACTUALISATION. This is, in a nutshell, feeling fulfilled and believing that we are the best that we can be. The detail of this is different for everybody, as some of us are fulfilled by being able to help others, some by creative or artistic pursuits and achievements, some by reaching the top of their chosen field, and some by continued life-long learning, to name but a few.

Maslow was a bit gloomy on this one, theorising that relatively few of us ever achieve self-actualisation. (I’ll let you know when I get there…!)

Quarantine Hierarchy of Needs

So, to the question in the title? Is all of this still relevant?

Can the theories of a psychologist from New York that were written in 1943 apply to a part-time accounts clerk who’s temporarily working from home on the outskirts of Milton Keynes in April 2020? Well, yes…

It’s true that there has been some partial debunking of Maslow’s theory in more recent years, and specifically, the ordered route through them. For example, is it not possible to feel loved and connected even if you’re struggling with some of those tier-one physiological needs, such as food? I’ll let you decide.

But what haven’t changed, and are more relevant and important than ever, are those “belonging” and “self-esteem” needs. It’s proven fact and, sadly, highly topical in these times of lockdown, that maintaining meaningful social connections is directly related to better mental and physical health, and that the opposite is true - feeling isolated (i.e. not meeting these “belonging” needs) impacts negatively on our health and well-being.

It’s obvious but interesting, then, that recognition and feedback can contribute so generously to those same two crucial tiers. Maslow stressed that the need for “belonging” encompasses both feeling loved and feeling love towards others.

So, telling your peers that you appreciate them, thanking your direct reports or colleagues, praising hard work or kind acts, shouting about others’ achievements and generally recognising the good stuff has never been more important for both recipient and sender. Hey, it’s good for your health!

Personally, I reckon Maslow was onto something. Prove him right - help yourself and your colleagues to reach that sparkling peak of self-actualisation by sharing some love! I believe the view from up there is spectacular!