Maslow hierachy of needs and motivating learners

Abraham Maslow developed a hierarchy of needs model that is still widely used for understanding human motivation ,management training and personal development.

The importance of motivation in learning is a key concept, after all a person needs to be motivated enough to pay attention so learning can take place.

Also countless studies have shown that stress and anxiety can also be present in learning opportunities and can destroy any motivation to learn.

Maslow theory suggests that motivation is driven by unsatisfied needs.

If that is the case then it is worth managers and learning professionals understanding which needs are most important for individual employees.

Maslow initially developed a hierarchy of five levels of need

 Physiological Needs

 These are basic biological needs for sustaining life . They consist of needs for oxygen, water, food, and a relatively constant body temperature. They are the most pressing  needs because if a person were deprived of all needs, the physiological ones would come first in the person's search for satisfaction

Safety Needs

When the basis physiological needs are met and no longer controlling thoughts and behaviours our  attention turns to safety and security in order to be free from the threat of physical and emotional harm.. Such needs might be fulfilled by:

  • Job security
  • Living in a safe area
  • Having adequate Financialreserves
  • Medical insurance

According to the hierarchy, if a person feels that he or she is in harm's way, higher needs will not receive much attention.

Social Needs

When the needs for safety and for physiological well-being are satisfied, the next class of needs for love, affection and belongingness can emerge. Maslow states that people seek to overcome feelings of loneliness and alienation. Social needs are those related to interaction with other people and may include:

  • Need for friends
  • Need for belonging


When the first three classes of needs are satisfied, the needs for esteem can become dominant. These involve needs for both self-esteem and for the esteem a person gets from others. Esteem needs may be classified as internal or external. Internal esteem needs are those related to self-esteem such as self respect and achievement. External esteem needs are those such as social status and recognition. Some esteem needs are:

  • Self-respect
  • Achievement
  • Attention
  • Recognition
  • Reputation

Humans have a need for astable, firmly based, high level of self-respect, and respect from others. When these needs are satisfied, the person feels self-confident and valuable as a person in the world. When these needs are not met , the person feels weak, helpless and worthless.


More information on Maslow here

More information on Maslow conscious competence model

Self-actualization is thesummit of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It is the quest of reaching one's full potential as a person. Unlike lower level needs, this need is never fully satisfied and continues to grow .

It is, according to Maslow, is the striving for health, the search for identity and autonomy, and the yearning for excellence. Self-actualized persons have frequent occurrences of peak experiences, which areenergized moments of profound happiness and harmony. According toMaslow, only a small percentage of the population reaches the level of self-actualization

Implications for Management

If Maslow's theory holds,there are some important implications for management. There are opportunities to motivate employees through management style, job design, company events, and compensation packages.

However, not all people are driven by the same needs - at any time different people may be motivated by entirely different factors. To motivate an employee, the manager must be able to recognize the needs level at which the employee is operating, and use those needs as levers of motivation.

 The thwarting of needs is usually a cause of stress

Maslow's concept of self-actualisation relates directly to the present day challenges and opportunities for employers and organisations - to provide real meaning, purpose and true personal development for their employees. For life - not just for work. Learning can, be seen as a form of self-actualization, it contributes to psychological health .

Increasingly, the most successful organisations and employers will be those who genuinely care about, understand, encourage and enable their people's personal growth towards self-actualisation - way beyond traditional work-related training and development

style="margin-left: 36pt; text-indent: -18pt;">·        Physiological needs: Provide lunch breaks, rest breaks, and wages that are sufficientto

purchase the essentials of life.

style="margin-left: 36pt; text-indent: -18pt;">·        Safety Needs:Provide a safe working environment, retirement benefits, and jobsecurity.

style="margin-left: 36pt; text-indent: -18pt;">·        Social Needs:Create a sense of community via team-based projects and social events.

style="margin-left: 36pt; text-indent: -18pt;">·        Esteem Needs:Recognize achievements to make employees feel appreciated and valued.Offer job titles that convey the importance of the position.

style="margin-left: 36pt; text-indent: -18pt;">·        Self-Actualization:Provide employees a challenge and the opportunity to reach their fullcareerpotential.

Limitations of Maslow'sHierarchy

While Maslow's hierarchymakes sense from an intuitive standpoint, there is little evidence to support its hierarchical aspect. Even though it lacks scientific support, it is quite well-known and is the first theory of motivation to which many people they are exposed. In that sense it is probably a useful guide to learners motivations.

 Much criticism has been levelled at this model. For example, 

  • Do lower needs really have to be satisfied before higher ones come into play? People may wellput physiological needs on one side to satisfy the need for love, for example.
  • Some cultures appear to place social needs before any others.
  • some people often risk their own safety to rescue others from danger
  • Are we all propelled tothe sorts of qualities that Maslow identifies with ‘self actualization’? To what extent are these qualities culturally-specific?
  • What about when  a person neglects lower needs in pursuit of higher ones such as the poor musician or artist?


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