Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a psychological theory introduced in a 1943 paper titled A Theory of Human Motivation. Many are familiar with the pyramid depicting layers of human needs. The concept being that the lowest need not met on the pyramid will become a person’s primary focus. Once a need layer is satisfied, it quickly loses our attention as the next layer gains prominent focus.
The three lower layers are physiological, safety and belonging, which are deficiency needs or primary needs. If these deficiency needs are not met, the individual feels anxious and tense stimulating action. More developed belonging, esteem and self-actualization are secondary needs with alternative theories on the placement based on cultural interpretation. Nevertheless, Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before an individual will recognize or desire the secondary or higher level needs.
Once these secondary desires have been achieved, it is no longer as cut and dry as to our overall motivation. If dropping down in the hierarchy, for example due to a job loss, a person can still be driven by higher or multiple layers simultaneously.
What does this have to do with sustainability?
Moving toward a sustainable future, we can benefit from acknowledging that many of us have different needs and motivations all pushing and pulling in opposite directions.
Someone who is living in extreme poverty cannot tackle the topic of pollution and deforestation when they are driven by physiological needs and merely seeking a means to survive. Furthermore, someone motivated by love and belonging does not notice that her new dress was made by someone far away under inhumane work conditions. She also has little motivation or awareness of systemic destabilization. It may be difficult for someone who is currently motivated by esteem issues to put his or her efforts into the greater good of all with regard to topics such as global safety or poverty issues. If this person is a business leader in a large organization, the negative impacts upon sustainability can be high.
Human resource experts and executive recruitment agencies have researched and developed assessments to identify and develop our business leaders. Unfortunately, the primary criteria for identifying the “best” are competitiveness, drive for power and social competence. A large number of these leaders are focused on the esteem layer of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need. This self-interested focus coupled with the ability to eloquently communicate may be an underlying cause for the contagion of self-interests, hubris, power and greed in business today. Recalibration of assessments to identify self-actualized leaders who hold a broader vision may support the balancing of business with the fundamental needs of our society as a whole.
There is a gap between the perceived focus and drivers of individual, politics and business. Globalization allows us to hide many of our abuses on the planet and one another from plain sight. Our personal motivations and tendency toward cognitive dissonance exacerbate this barrier for a collaborative dialog toward sustainable change. Recognizing this gap is one of the first steps to finding common ground.
Without trying to sound alarmist, there is some urgency here. According to Todd Stern, the US Special Envoy for Climate Change, “The science is clear, and the threat is real. The facts on the ground are outstripping the worst case scenarios.” We don’t often see the direct impacts of climate change and human environmental destruction as we go about our daily lives. Since we in the western world have the air to breathe, water to drink, and food to eat this physiological lowest layer of Maslow’s pyramid is unlikely to capture our attention. Certainly, we don’t want to wait for a catastrophic event to get everyone focused on ensuring the most basic needs for our survival are secured.
Maslow’s pyramid can further be applied to business. The physiological elements of business are capital inflows, resources and demand. Without these elements, business too cannot survive. In spite of the “rarity” competitive advantage that companies seek to exploit, if critical resources are scarce we create social problems for our consumer base. The drive for increased efficiencies have resulted in wage reductions as well. Income inequality could result in further demand destruction and loss of capital inflows. Business too has a vested interest in a sustainable future.
In the end, we are all connected and our needs are ultimately the same. We are in this together.