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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in Communications

communication management


If you have managed a couple of projects or have worked as an IT consultant with clients you soon find out that communicating with people can sometimes be challenging.

Since a project manager is communicating 90% of the time during a project (see link) it is of utmost importance that what is communicated is received and understood by your audience. It is pretty obvious to most that in order to understand the communication the receiver must have the necessary educational level to comprehend the communication. But are there any other areas affecting how the communication is received? Yes, there is a psychological aspect of communication that we need to cover also. It is called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and involves psychological evaluation of your audience.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a psychological theory proposed by Abraham Maslow. It essentially divides an individual’s needs into five layers.

The bottom layer is the physiological layer and deals with the individuals need for air, food, sleep etc. The next layer deals with safety, like money, health, property etc. The third layer deals with belonging to something like friendship and family. Next layer is about esteem, confidence, achievement and respect. The top layer is self-actualization and includes creativity, problem solving, spontaneity and personal development.

The theory says that in order to experience a need on one layer, the layers below must be fulfilled. A good example is that if you are missing essentials like food and water you are not so concerned with needs like making friendships, which is two layers above. Also you will not have a need for creativity if you are having a medical emergency.

So what can we as project managers (or human beings) use this hierarchy for? Well, all people are usually communicating on one of the layers in the hierarchy. If you are communicating on a different layer you risk that the communication may fail.

I know you must be dying for examples on how to use it and here are some.

A person has just bought a nice new vehicle and is showing it off to his friends by driving a few miles over the speed limit on the high way. Oh, it’s a wonderful car. Life is great as he is driving it. The person is definitely on the 4th or 5th level. He is oozing confidence, achievement and respect by others.

A police car, with the lights on, appears in the rear view mirror. Oops!  The person immediately falls to the second level.  Now he is worried about being pulled over, getting a fine, and being ridiculed by his friends. He eases off the gas and pulls the hand brake slightly to slow down just below the speed limit. He is still on the second layer.

The police car passes right by him and the man says, “Did you all see that? I used the hand brake to fool the cop”.  Now he is back to 4th or 5th level.

This is an example how easy it is for someone to change levels quickly. Most are more steadily on a certain level but can change up or down depending on the situation.

If I had to communicate with an A/P clerk it would be very different from the communication I would have with a CFO. The A/P clerk is likely to be on the second or third layer from the bottom and that individual’s need would be something safe and easy.  So I would make sure that whatever I will ask of them would make them feel comfortable and safe. I would not be communicating things that would make them have to deal with complex problem solving (5th level). That’s more something you would address to the CFO that is much more likely to enjoy problem solving.

Let’s say that you are going to discuss the current flow of the A/P clerks work to be able to suggest a better work-flow. Since the clerk is on the 2nd to 3rd layer you want to ask questions about what would make things easier for them. Where does he currently have problems? What could save him time? An example of a subject you don’t want to discuss is what he thinks can contribute to the bottom line of the company or what could make the company grow (5th layer).

On the other hand if you are talking to the CFO that is communicating on the 5th layer that’s exactly the kind of question you could ask him. He would not be interested in detailed A/P issues and how to solve them.

So you may argue that what I am doing is simply just communicating on the educational level of the receiver. That the CFO is more likely to be able to solve problems based on the fact that the CFO has a higher education than the A/P clerk. My answer would be that you are right to some extent. The educational level is a good indicator on what level the receiver is at but even a CFO or a highly educated person can swing between the levels. What if they are dealing with a severe illness in the family and you know about it? The CFO will be on a different needs level and your communication should be adapted to the level you believe he or she is at.

The point of all this is for you to make sure you are communicating on the correct needs level to ensure that the message is received and understood correctly. Have Maslow’s needs hierarchy in mind next time you communicate with someone as a project manager or in your personal life. It’s a lot of fun!

Below is from

The Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory proposed by Abraham Harold Maslow in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation. Maslow, a famous psychologist tried to understand human motivation.

According to Maslow, each person had a different set of needs at different point of time in his life. He said that all needs of humans could be arranged in a hierarchy. Each person is said to move through the hierarchy by fulfilling each level of needs. Some people may have dominant needs at a particular level and thus never move through the entire hierarchy.

Maslow’s hierarchy lists the following five levels of needs:

Physiological needs: This level of needs deals with the basic necessities of human survival like food, clothing and shelter. If a person does not fulfill these needs he will cease to function.

Safety: Once the first level needs are met, a person feels the need to have a life of security where safety in all aspects of life is ensured.

Social needs: This deals with the innate need to feel as if one belongs in a chosen social group and in various other relationships that are a part of human life. There is a need to be accepted or otherwise people are prone to negative effects like depression & loneliness.

Esteem: Deals with the need to feel good about oneself and getting recognition from others. A lack of these needs will result in an inferiority complex and helplessness.

Self-actualization: Becoming the best one can be. Here the need is to maximize ones potential.

The levels are presented in the form of a triangle or a pyramid with the largest and most fundamental levels of needs at the bottom tier, and the need for self-actualization at the top. According to Maslow physiological, security, social, and esteem needs are deficiency needs or D-needs that arise because of deprivation. The highest-level of the pyramid is called the growth needs or B-needs.

The limitations with this theory lie in the fact that different cultures may cause people to have different hierarchies of needs. People necessarily may not satisfy one level after another and may have other needs not mentioned in the list and may be ready to sacrifice some needs.

-From and

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