Want to Motivate People? Get Them Out of Maslow's Basement

About 10 years ago, my brother Chip ran a study on what motivates people, and I want to run it on you now. So imagine that a company offers employees a $1,000 bonus if they meet certain performance targets. There are three different ways of presenting the bonus to employees:

  1. Think of what that $1,000 means: a down-payment on a new car or that new home improvement you've wanted to make. 
  2. Think of the increased security of having that $1,000 in your bank account for a rainy day.
  3. Think of what the $1,000 means: the company recognizes how important you are to their overall performance.  They don't spend money for nothing. 


Which of these 3 positionings would appeal most to you? Most people answer #3. It’s good for our self-esteem to think how important we are to the firm.

Here’s the other question: Which of these positionings would work best for other people? Well, that yields a different answer. People put #1 first, #2 second, and #3 third. In other words, WE are motivated by self-esteem but other people are motivated by a down-payment on a car.

Do you remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Basically what this study is telling us is that most of us believe that we’re perched in Maslow’s Penthouse – what moves us are these higher levels of needs. And meanwhile most other people are stuck down in Maslow’s basement, worried about cars and job security. This bias, which I think most of us have, can be a real problem, especially if you’re a manager or a marketer who needs to motivate other people.

To be clear, those bottom floors are important.  We all like to fit in with others and to have job security and to … um, eat.  But to focus on those needs exclusively, robs us of the chance to tap into more profound motivations.

I doubt many people who worked on the iPhone or who work for Oxfam in Africa or who volunteered for the Obama campaign were motivated by a thirst for job security. We can’t forget that other people see themselves as living in the Penthouse, just like we do.

Here's my brother Chip's research paper on the bias we have about other people's motivations. And In the Emotional chapter of Made to Stick, we discuss in detail what makes people care about an idea. And for a refresher on Maslow's Hierarchy, check out Wikipedia. (One interesting note: Skeptics have charged that Maslow's Hierarchy isn't truly a hierarchy--that there's no reason to believe you need to have your safety needs met before you can advance upward to love/belonging. If it was truly a hierarchy, there'd be no such thing as a starving artist.)

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