A New-Look Motive Hierarchy for Human Flourishing

Update Maslow by putting personal agency in the driver's seat.

Posted Nov 30, 2019

 Dick Close, used with permission
Source: Graphic: Dick Close, used with permission

Introduced in the mid-20th century, Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (HON) was impressive then and is still famous today. Surprisingly, though, Maslow never used the iconic pyramid to depict his hierarchy. It therefore is not impertinent to use new research (many others’ including mine) to update the pyramid in meaningful ways that respect Maslow’s original thinking.

The proposed hierarchy is motive-based rather than need-based and emphasizes action driven by personal agency. It thus features "doing" along with having (needs) and being (self-actualized). People choose their individualized pathways to the new peak of the pyramid: human flourishing, including other people’s as well as one’s own.  

A Revised Hierarchy of Human Motives

The graphic shows a new motivation hierarchy with seven components.

At the hierarchy’s foundation, subsistence motives subsume Maslow's two lower-order needs: physiological and safety/security. At the next level up, social motives echo Maslow's love, belonging, and social needs, while agency is both a powerful motivator—related to needs for competence and control—and a high-leverage bridge to action. The core belief in personal agency is self-efficacy—our belief in our ability to perform a task. Efficacy beliefs influence the choices people make, the goals they pursue, and the courses their lives take.

Efficacy beliefs affect whether people pursue growth, self-development, and self-transcendence, and the forms those pursuits will take. Self-development emphasizes exploiting and strengthening one's knowledge, talents, and capacities; it captures self-actualization as Maslow usually described it; and it includes personal and professional growth and accomplishment.

Self-transcendence is a motive distinguished from self-development by serving externally directed goals that benefit other people and causes. Maslow wrote that human potentialities could be individual or collective or even species-wide, describing some but not all of his self-actualized study participants as unselfish people desiring to help the human race. Commensurately, the new hierarchy identifies self-transcendence as an alternative to self-development, a high-level motive manifested in choices and behaviors that create positive outcomes for others.

Self-development and self-transcendence support and propel growth and flourishing in oneself and others. People can satisfy these as well as lower-level motives through naturally occurring developmental processes but also via agentic choice and self-direction.

Human Flourishing at the Pinnacle

In theorizing about self-actualization, Maslow drew from the humanistic psychologists of the time while also crediting Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia: a higher calling than hedonic happiness in which people pursue and realize their truest and best (virtuous) selves. Current research on psychological well-being and flourishing is revealing new knowledge about eudaimonia, thereby elaborating the highest levels of the motive hierarchy.

Human flourishing is "a state of complete well-being." Incorporating the extensive well-being literature, flourishing means doing well or being well-- self-realized, fully functioning, and purposefully engaged-- in:

  1. Physical and mental health, including self-acceptance and life satisfaction.
  2. Purpose in life.
  3. Character and virtue.
  4. Positive social relationships.
  5. Autonomy and environmental mastery (for instance, feeling competent and in control).
  6. Personal growth.

Each of these indicators is an end in itself (and often a means to other ends), and each is a nearly universal desire.

Pathways to Flourishing

At least four contexts—family, work, education, and religious community—offer pathways to multiple flourishing criteria. Within and across contexts, flourishing can appear via either circumstantial or self-generated opportunities. The paths to flourishing include lower to higher levels, meaningful projects and well-doing, free traits, and proaction.

Lower to higher levels

The pathways to flourishing open wider when lower-level needs are satisfied in the moment and over time. The foundation for subsistence, and therefore a condition for sustained flourishing, is access to resources—financial, medical, social, and natural/geographical in the face of climate change—sufficiently secure to continue adequately.

Meaningful projects and well-doing

Flourishing and well-being derive from well-chosen actions—what Professor Brian Little describes as ”well-doing”-- manifested through the sustained pursuit of personally-valued core projects. Activities that are fun and pleasurable promote hedonic, satisfaction-based well-being, whereas a more profound, eudaimonic well-being derives from pursuing projects that satisfy higher values and purpose.

Free traits

Doing well in life, work, and meaningful projects demands a vast repertoire of behaviors and performances. Our personalities—whatever we think they are, or however "tests" might score us—fit comfortably with some, but certainly not all, of these demands. Thankfully, what may be the most important traits of them all are what Little calls free traits: the flexibility and ability to behave differently from our natural tendencies when circumstances require it. A prime example is a person labeled an introvert who does well in a presentation or at a big social event even when preferring to be in the audience or at smaller gatherings.

As stressful as uncomfortable challenges can be, breaking the confines of personal tendencies can have eudaimonic effects. Free traits help us grow and flourish in domains that we had previously thought were beyond the bounds of our competency.

Proaction

Bandura's social cognitive theory is both realistic and optimistic about people’s abilities to shape desirable futures. Extending his theorizing to the workplace, management researchers study the meaning and many consequences (net positive but often risky) of behaving proactively—that unique class of behavior that overrides situational influences, transcends constraints, changes current trajectories, and forges new paths. 

Proaction is the self-chosen exercise of agency. Proaction is purposeful and future-focused—forethought being the temporal extension of agency—and intended to create positive change in oneself (self-development) or environments, with benefits to oneself and other people (self-transcendence). In combination, this duality generates human flourishing in the broadest sense.

Conclusion

Maslow’s theorizing spread from psychology to the business world. The revised motive hierarchy offered here holds additional implications for career and self-management, as well as for human resources programs such as employee engagement, wellness, and leadership development.

Extending his theorizing even further, Maslow expressed frustration that managers and management scholars ignored his broader vision of a more enlightened and engaged citizenry. He wrote that a good society is a psychologically healthy one, giving its members the best chances of self-actualizing. He would have valued workplaces and communities that 1) meet subsistence and social needs, 2) support healthy and productive levels of personal agency, 3) provide opportunities for self-development and self-transcendence, and 4) contribute to human flourishing beyond and across organizational and geographical boundaries.

The test of leadership, Maslow believed, is the effect of policies and actions on people's behavior outside of work, in the community. The new motivation hierarchy emphasizes doing as well as being and highlights personal agency as a springboard to self-development, self-transcendence, and flourishing. If leaders and others help create workplaces and communities in which people flourish, the revised motive hierarchy can contribute to an even more aspirational and empowering Maslow legacy.