Why is this interesting? - Monday, April 22

On triangles, Maslow’s Hierarchy, and more triangles

Now that we are a month in we are going to start incorporating some guests. Part of the goal is to include some new and different ideas and the other is to give ourselves a little break from the onslaught of the nightly deadline. Today’s editor is Steve Bryant (hereby referred to as SB). Beyond being the first person to ask to guest edit, Steve is also part of the team behind one of my favorite newsletters: Article Group’s aptly named Article (I wrote about variance for them a few weeks ago). Steve and I share a possibly unhealthy obsession with frameworks and mental models and today’s edition is all about triangles in frameworks, hierarchies, logos, and life. Thanks Steve! (PS - If any of you would like to do a guest edit, please just drop a line.) - Noah (NRB)

Steve here. Everybody knows Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (HON). It’s motivational psychology 101. It’s the concept casually referenced everywhere from conference rooms to coffee shops. I know it. You know it. Your barista knows it.

Most of us recall the HON as a triangle—a tidy and pleasingly geometric representation of the stages of human growth. You start at the base where you're motivated by everyday, Rolling Stones-like, needs (gimme shelter). Then you ascend, workmanlike, through the tiers of safety, belonging, and esteem. As the triangle narrows to its apex, you leave behind the less talented, the less aspirational. Strive diligently, the triangle suggests, and you’ll eventually reach that Everest of motivational peaks, the thin and rarified climes of self-actualization.     

This is a pleasing model. A coherent model. A model that appears complete. Its equilateral structure conveys sturdiness and strength and scientific credibility. It looks precise. Exact. As a corporate signifier, it represents command and control: the talented c-suite at the top, the mediocre permalancers at the base. It’s the most famous symbol in all of management studies.

But here’s the thing: Maslow never suggested a triangle. He never implied his hierarchy should be a triangle. In fact, he disliked the idea of the triangle—he thought the triangle was too reductive and introduced misconceptions. So when every corporate strategist describes their customer’s Buddha-like ascent up those vertices, they’re laboring under a mighty misconception.

The triangle, in other words, is a lie.

Why is this interesting?

Because Maslow’s triangle (or pyramid) is the most famous symbol in management studies—a management meme, if you will. But if Maslow himself never suggested a triangle, who did? And why? And what purpose does the triangle serve?

A new paper suggests the original culprit is Douglas McGregor, a professor at MIT Sloan. McGregor incorporated HON into his Theory X and Theory Y of Management and his classic book The Human Side of Enterprise. That book was wildly popular, but obscured Maslow’s influence (emphasis mine):

McGregor’s incorporation of Maslow’s thinking into his work in this obscure fashion facilitated later misinterpretations of Maslow and might have contributed to others placing the HON in a pyramid. For example, among the most popular criticisms of the hierarchy of needs today is the view that people are motivated to satisfy only one need at the time, that a need must be fully satisfied before they move to a higher level need on the pyramid, and that a satisfied need is no longer a motivator of behavior. This view is promulgated by McGregor, not Maslow. McGregor (1960: 39, emphasis in original) summarizes: “The man whose lower-level needs are satisfied is not motivated to satisfy those needs. For practical purposes they exist no longer.”

What’s more, the pyramid took on a universality both across societies and individuals that Maslow never intended. He “acknowledged that while most of his clinical patients seemed to have their needs arranged in his needs hierarchy, there were ‘a number of exceptions.’ For some, self-esteem was more important than love. … Maslow (1943: 390) was clear that “no claim is made that [self-actualization] is ultimate or universal for all cultures.” These misinterpretations of Maslow’s work eventually led to the reduction of HON into a triangle. The first appearance of that triangle was in a 1960 article in Business Horizons called “How Money Motivates Men”.

So how did the HON triangle become so universal—despite it being in a form Maslow never intended, and with characteristics he didn’t suggest? The Academy of Management’s research is clear—blame the consultants and textbook authors:

Presenting the HON as a pyramid suited almost everyone involved: consultants like McDermid who needed a memorable framework to sell to clients; the Academy of Management who wanted its members to be seen as being relevant to practice; textbook publishers and authors who needed not just an idea that had practical applications to the “real world,” but also the academic credibility that a “founding father” such as Maslow could provide (and then a progression that could be demonstrated by showing his ideas to be simplistic and outdated); and researchers who could propose extensions to the pyramid to address gaps in Maslow’s thinking.

Maslow was alive while all this misrepresentation was going on. He didn’t like it. But, he did little to correct it.

He did, however, express his dislike for reductionism by coining a new term—rubricizing: “a cheap form of cognizing, i.e., really a form of not-cognizing, a quick, easy cataloguing whose function is to make unnecessary the effort required by more careful, idiographic perceiving or thinking”. (SB)

Maslow Overreach of the Day:

It’s hard to choose just one, but after some Googling, I think this Maslow translated to fashion brands must make the list. Honorable mention to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Startups. (NRB)

Quick Links:

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Steve (SB)