Why Maslow's Pyramid is Wrong

Written by Azat MardanOctober 07, 2020

Many of you know Maslow’s pyramid of needs. Actually, Maslow’s never came up with a pyramid. He had a ladder. Other people took his ladder and created a pyramid that is now used in management books.

The gist is that the pyramid consists of five needs (from bottom to top): physiological (bottom), safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization (top). The pyramid says a person needs to fulfill the bottom level first before attempting to fulfill the higher levels. For example, a person who is not safe or who is not fed would not pursue his/her passion nor higher purpose (self-actualization). This theory is neat and widely know and accepted. Even famous lifestyle guru Tony Robbins uses this pyramid in his seminars. The problem is that this pyramid is wrong.

The Maslow’s pyramid is wrong because it says a person needs to fulfill the bottom level first before attempting to fulfill the higher levels. All of you know a starting artist trying to make great art. Or a musician who can’t provide for his family (or even provide a safe place or good food for himself) but writes songs out of esteem (self-respect) and self-actualization. Then, there is military people who risk their lives (safety) and undergo tremendous lack in physiological needs (water, food) during times of war to achieve higher self-actualization, esteem and to protect loved ones and their society, city or country. These examples show that the pyramid is wrong. But don’t despair. I came up with a better system.

It’s Maslow’s Circles of Needs that has physiological needs right in the center and other four needs placed on a circle around the center. The reasoning is that all needs feed the physiological needs for survival. Humans are wired evolutionary to survive. Recent (100,000 of years) development of pre-frontal cortex led to more complex behaviors. But in the end, they all can support and fulfill the physiological needs.

Maslow's Circles of Needs

Indeed, a starving artist wants to become famous which in turn will lead to better living conditions and food. A programmer loves coding open source software as a hobby (in his spare time) because he’s good at it. He is better at coding than selling used cars or digging ditches. The programmer understands (mostly unconsciously) that by doing his most effective and efficient, he can obtain more money than by doing other jobs. In fact, open source contributors can be hired by a big company for a big paycheck to maintain their projects. Prestige helps with getting jobs too. In the end, he is increasing his potential to fulfill physiological needs.

By turning the pyramid around in a circle, we are parting away from the limiting belief, that is the notion that the bottom levels must be fulfilled before the higher levels and the top. Circle offers a better system for understanding and motivating your team. Everything boils down to or has the potential to improve the physiological needs (albeit at the unconscious level for some people). People vary in their approach and preferences between all four other needs. It might sound like an over simplification but why over complicate and impose a limiting belief (which is not even true) in the first place? Sometime the correct solution is the simplest one too.