Back in 1943, Abraham Maslow published his famous “hierarchy of human needs”, which quickly became a classic reference regarding the motivation of people at work and in any kind of situation.

The basic idea is that people first need to satisfy basic needs, such as physiological needs and safety, which stood at the two bottom levels of the hierarchy (often referred to as a “pyramid of needs”. Once the basic needs are satisfied, people become motivated to satisfy “higher” needs in the next three levels: belonging, esteem and self actualization. Whenever a need at a lower level is not satisfied, behavior turns to satisfy that lower need until it is satisfied. Only then will anyone be motivated by the next higher need. When the bottom four levels are reasonably satisfied, people will turn to satisfying the top need (self-actualization).

This “pyramid” concept of needs was disseminated all over the world for seventy years and was taken for granted as “universal”. It was used in psychology, sociology and management courses as a sort of “Motivation 101” course. It has become so popular, so well-known by people in general, that, for instance, in Brazil, the press and people in general have coined an expression: “physiological politicians”, referring to politicians in Congress who will vote on legislation independent of ideology, but rather based on whoever satisfies their basic needs. This is an euphemism for corrupt politicians who basically “sell” their votes to the highest bidder.

Not universal pictures

The hierarchy of needs was proposed and accepted by most people as a universal concept, that applies to everyone. However, we now know that this picture is not really universal: it has a strong cultural bias, like many other concepts that were born as a product of a given culture and mistakenly thought to apply equally to all mankind.

Yes, we can say that the bottom part of the pyramid is fairly universal: everybody needs to first satisfy their physiological needs before they can turn to safety needs, and only after these two are reasonably satisfied can they focus on belonging needs (the next higher level). But that is exactly when things start to become a bit more complicated.

I happen to be a fan of Maslow: his work reached far beyond the hierarchy of needs and included the foundations for the Humanistic Psychology movement of the 60’s and 70’s, that I joined as a young student. He turned the attention away from looking at people who were mentally ill in order to understand human personality, towards learning from people who were mentally well. That part of his work has had a huge impact on psychology, sociology and management. He deserves all the praise in the world for that. However, his pyramid is crumbling.

To speak about “belonging”, then “esteem”, and then self-actualization makes absolute sense in a culture that highly values individualism and performance, such as the US and its cultural peers (UK, Canada, Australia). Yet, when we look at cultures that value collectivism, the picture changes a bit.

Mind you, it might very well be that Maslow himself was aware of this; he was a sensitive and worldly person. Unfortunately he has passed away in 1970, so we cannot ask him to comment. He never got to know Hofstede’s research on culture values and their impact on how people perceive and assess the reality around them.

We can now see that in collectivistic cultures the emphasis on belonging to groups and maintaining loyalty to them during your whole life is much stronger than in individualistic societies. In collectivistic cultures it is all about “we” and group opinions are more important than individual opinions. Confrontations and conflicts are avoided.

The need for esteem is quite different in “caring” cultures (like Scandinavia and The Netherlands) than in performance-oriented cultures like Japan, Germany, the US and China. In the US, where Maslow was born and raised, esteem centers around self-esteem. It is certainly natural that once you have the need for belonging satisfied, you move to satisfy your emerging need for esteem. Specially in the US, esteem centers around self-esteem. Your individual responsibility is more important than the groups you belong to, so the precedence of “belonging” to “esteem” could be questioned. Also, esteem is obtained through standing out among your peers, gaining status through performance. Winners are admired, so self-esteem is reinforced by the admiration of others. The sense of belonging, however, seems to be less important.

In Scandinavian cultures, standing out is frowned upon; performance does not drive self-esteem. It is driven by a sense of autonomy and independence, most often not focused on performance, but rather on the ability to enjoy a better quality of life. Winners are often seen with suspicion; there is more sympathy for the underdogs and the less fortunate. Success is considered to be largely a function of luck, rather than capability.

Therefore, the pyramid might have a different order of needs, on the higher levels, depending on culture. The needs have a different way of manifesting themselves and people seek to satisfy them in very different ways. Priorities are different and the hierarchy of needs is different. 

At the very top of the pyramid, we find other differences as well. The very concept of “self-actualization” seems almost incomprehensible in collectivistic societies where your duties to your family, to your elders and to society are much more valued than the actualization of your individual potential. In some Asian cultures, people may never seek “self-actualization”, but rather they seek to “lose the sense of self” in order to blend in with the universe and to reach Nirvana. In China self-actualization is seen as selfish. Actualizing your potential is interpreted as fulfilling your duty towards your family and your “guanxi”(life-long networks of friends). Is that different from the need for belonging, placed at the third level of the pyramid?

The question that needs to be addressed is: “what are the underlying values supporting this (and any) concept?” We all have cultural biases of which we are seldom aware. We need mirrors provided by people from different cultures in order to become aware of our bias. Maslow and his early followers all lacked such mirrors in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, because the concept of culture differences was hardly tangible in those days.

Paramount pictures

Management models such as Michael Porter’s “competitive advantage”, or Tom Peters’ “Excellent Organizations” have also quite strong culture biases. They are paramount pictures in the American culture, but not necessarily elsewhere. Some things get lost in translation, but it’s not just a matter of translation. Even a well-translated concept may simply not apply to a different culture because the environment is completely different from a sociological point of view.

Porter’s ideas fit very well in cultures that are very competition-oriented, such as the US, UK and other Anglo-Saxon societies. However, there are cultures which are more collaboration-based rather than competition-based. In these cultures, companies are not focused on competitive advantage, they are focused on coexisting in harmony and seeking to better understand client needs. Competition is such an important aspect of doing business in Anglo-Saxon cultures that it may distract companies from their main purpose, which is actually… providing services and products to clients!

It is no coincidence that focusing on the client’s focus (rather than focusing on the client), as is often stressed by José Carlos Teixeira Moreira from the Escola de Marketing Industrial (a business school) in São Paulo, is a concept developed in a collectivistic culture such as Brazil. In collectivistic cultures communication is more receiver-oriented rather than sender-oriented. In such societies people grow up with a greater attention to other people’s perspectives, rather than their own; there is more sensitivity to non-verbal messages, to reading between the lines and to trying to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings, in order to better deal with relationships. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is easier to do in marketing terms, in Brazil, than it is in Northern Europe or North America, where individualistic values predominate. Naturally, this affects the type of models and concepts used in marketing, in management and in doing business in general.

When Tom Peters writes and leads workshops about “The Search of Excellence”, the first thing he mentions is that excellent companies all have one thing it common: a bias for action. Peters failed to see that this is true of his own culture, which values action rather than reflection or elaborate planning. Therefore, the bias for action is true for companies operating in America and in similar cultures. However, the bias for action is regarded as acting irresponsibly in cultures with a high Uncertainty Avoidance index, such as Germany, France or Japan. These cultures consider that if you act too quickly, you make too many mistakes.

Getting people to act fast in the US is easy; everybody has been raised with a favorable bias towards that and they quickly become energized and motivated by suggestions of “a little less conversation, a little more action”. Doing the same in Germany or Japan is much more difficult! People have learned that action should be preceded by careful planning and analysis. They believe that it is more important to take your time in aiming, and only firing when you are confident that you can hit the target. Conversely, in the US it is about being quick on the trigger and firing first.

In Brazil many people have an idealized impression about the United States. They tend to think that whatever works in New York will work just as well in São Paulo. Well, it ain’t necessarily so…  Things that work in the US do so because they are consistent with that culture. Will it work just as well in Brazil? Maybe. Ask yourself what are the key aspects of what you are looking at. Ask yourself whether these key aspects will be consistent with the Brazilian culture or whether they are likely to clash with it.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Whenever we encounter a business model, a concept or a framework that is presented as “universal” we would do well to question its origin and the cultural values it is based on. In analyzing the validity of models it is not enough to ask about its logic; we need to ask about whether that logic will hold true for any kind of environment and not only for the environment in which it was created.

Maslow’s Pyramid initially seemed to fit any kind of environment. This is largely because most of the western cultures’ graduate programs have a strong influence exerted by Anglo-Saxon ideas; when another idea comes along and it fits the concepts we’ve been hearing at school, we think that it must be true. However, it may not be consistent with the real world outside our universities’ walls! In the real world people’s behaviors are determined by the values they’ve learned at home, in primary school and in the community when they were children. The real world’s values are not determined by university professors who teach using foreign books as a base.

If we want to study people’s motivation and behavior, there is nothing better than going out and talking to simple  people. Try to learn from what small businesses are doing, try to learn from entrepreneurs who have been successful operating simple organizations in a small scale, in unsophisticated environments. This will give you fantastic insights about what people really need, what motivates them, what drives their behavior. Therein lie numerous opportunities to understand your potential clients and to offer them what they actually need. You can deliver true value, as judged by your clients, for which they will gladly pay you generously.