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  • Writer's pictureChristina

Sincere Apologies to Abraham Maslow | The Epistles of Christina

Updated: May 25

Dear Leaders and Managers Alike,

It has been too long since we last spoke. I must say, you all look positively exquisite.

I write today to express sorrow at a complete disregard for American psychologist and studier of human motivation, Abraham Maslow.

As psychology has delved deeper into human motivation, and theories and models were developed, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been largely discredited. Now, I/O psychologists discuss Vroom’s theory, Hertzberg’s two-factor theory, control theory, equity theory, goal-setting theory, and oh dear god there are so many theories.

While I personally, am a great fan of control theory, the popular theory in practice seems to be Vroom’s expectancy theory.

For those not familiar, expectancy theory is a hybrid of needs, equity, and reinforcement theories. The argument is that motivation is based on appraising three factors, expectancy, instrumentality, and valence.

Expectancy relates to the belief that the more effort exerted, the greater the success. Instrumentality is when the individual can see a connection between the activities performed and the goal. Valence is the degree to which the reward is valued (or the value perceived from the result of successful work performed).

Vroom’s theory is popular because it works… well, worked.

More and more I hear your cries, Chris, you say, this isn’t working the same way that it once did! I/O psychology has failed us!

I’m here to tell you that there are many reasons why Vroom’s theory is failing you, and the solution… is Maslow (with apologies to Dr. Clayton Alderfer).

As young people enter the workforce, they are bringing with them what they’ve seen happening in the real world. They know that hard work will not lead to greater success. To quote the great Tyler Durden:

“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

This means that one of the fundamental aspects of Vroom’s theory has collapsed. Expectancy as a motivational factor is broken. Further, work has become more specialized. As a result, the work one does on a team can be very isolating. They no longer see a connection between their work and the goal. And finally, since expectancy is low and instrumentality is non-existent, employees will not see any value in any rewards they might get from their work. That is to say, it’s become meaningless. Work becomes nothing more than a paycheck; a means to an end.

But, dear leaders, don't relegate Vroom’s theory to a bin!

While Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been much maligned by my fellow I/O psychologists, I stand before you to say that without Maslow, the other theories fall apart, even without generational nihilism.

When physiological needs aren’t being met, motivation suffers, regardless of the theory you employ. It’s very difficult to be driven to be successful when you are worried about having enough money to eat; if you have to sacrifice buying groceries and gas in order to make rent; if you feel lonely. When these physiological needs aren’t being met, your hard work doesn’t ever translate into greater success.

Further, in situations where safety is being called into question, including the security of employment, morality, family, and health, instrumentality suffers. No longer does the individual see a connection between the activities they perform and the goal, but activities become a way to ensure they maintain the need for safety.

These are the two lowest levels of Maslow’s pyramid.

Where modern I/O psychology has failed you all, friends, is the belief that modern theories and models can override and ignore the basic needs of the person. That is to say, workers can be motivated to do anything, regardless of their biological needs and psychological needs.

What they fail to understand is that these additional theories only become applicable when the lowest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy are realized. It’s only then that the pursuit of higher needs can occupy more brain space.

That’s right. Modern theories don’t work unless you meet the needs of the employee, to begin with.

What can we do?

The solution is simple: pay your employees a living wage, give them time off to take care of various needs, provide a psychologically safe work environment, and engage with them so that you understand where they might be frustrated. If they are frustrated due to personal issues, you can (depending on the nature of the company and your relationship) offer to help or to be a listening ear, otherwise do your best to respond to these frustrations so that it no longer inhibits them from being successful.

This requires a change of heart. As a leader you should want them to be successful, not for the sake of yourself or the company, but because you see your team as being put in your care. You are there to grow them in ways that lead to their success, regardless of its impact on the company or you.

Understanding human motivation is important for any leader, but understanding that motivation changes depending on the needs of the individual is more important. As managers of projects, entrusted with the lives of others, we need to acknowledge that people are people, and not capital and resources meant to be used. People want to do a good job, but if they are starving every night, they will never be able to grow, and so the nihilism will continue.

Je vous souhaite la santé, le bonheur, et la prospérité,


Editor's Note: While this is again so very insightful, our readership has grown to expect a certain ratio of more colorful language in our writing. This has become a respected standard here at Astutely Obtuse. For the time being, here is George Carlin's - The Seven Words You Can't Say on TV

Author's Note: Mike... why do you have to be this way?


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Mar 01, 2023
Astutely Obtuse Staff Writer
Astutely Obtuse Staff Writer
Mar 02, 2023
Replying to

Hi guest,

Your references, while admirable, seem to ignore the central point that I was making as part of this article. You see, I am not arguing that the hierarchy of needs is the sole source of employee motivation, but that it can be used to provide a foundational understanding of why some models might not be working, which is to say, if an employee is not having their basic physiological needs met, then all the expectancy theory in the world isn't going to do squat.

Here's other bright researchers who also feel that there are still broad applications for Maslow, in ways that go far beyond a simple, standalone, motivational theory

gjmbsv3n10_03.pdf (

The need to belong: Rediscovering Maslow's…

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