Happy birthday motivation theory

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Seventy years ago Abraham Maslow published his theory of motivation.

Head of professional development, Chris Lake
Head of professional development, Chris Lake

My guess is you’ve heard of it – actually, my guess is that you’d have a good stab at writing it down.  Go on – test yourself before you scroll down to the diagram at the foot of the blog – see if you can remember his five levels of human need.  Maslow’s is one of those theories that has transcended academic boundaries and moved into generally accepted truth.

Trouble is, I’m really conflicted about Maslow and his theory.  You see, it was never underpinned by any decent research nor any empirical evidence. It doesn’t really deserve the description ‘theory’.  I would describe Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as an untested hypothesis, or even heuristic – a shortcut model that might make sense but isn’t necessarily true.

On the other hand, the application of the model is no bad thing.  Maslow and his contemporaries of socio-psychological theorists are responsible for changing our view of the very nature of work and organisations.  Prior to 1943, we understood the world of work through mechanical eyes with workers mere cogs in the machine to be managed and measured rather than led and engaged.

Even so, Maslow’s hierarchy was never my favourite of the fundamental theories.  For me, Hertzberg got it more or less right.  Hertzberg researched (which has got to be a stronger starting point than Maslow) his two factor theory.  In essence, he divorced the things that motivate us (satisfiers) from those that do the opposite (hygiene factors).  Get the hygiene factors right – including the working environment, atmosphere, food, even the monthly salary – and you’ll avoid people being disenchanted and demotivated.  But they won’t be singing the corporate anthem either.  Get the satisfiers right – including praise, recognition, a well-designed job in which they can achieve, and space for personal growth – and you open up the possibility for genuine contribution and motivation.

Why am I thinking about this today?  There are two reasons.  Firstly, I’m thinking about the ‘fathers’ of motivation theory because the NHS Leadership Academy is leading the research and development of a new healthcare Leadership Model. (by the way – I wish there had been more ‘mothers’ of motivation theory – I postulate that, if there had been, then a more rounded view of human motivation would have emerged earlier in history).

CLbloglist-MaslowTheoryAnyway, our findings so far take the fundamental theories several steps forward.  It’s been known for decades that people simply do not behave as cogs in the organisation machine.  Instead they behave as members of organisational societies where genuinely engaging them, leading rather than controlling them, can create an organisation where people say good things about it and within it, stay for longer with loyalty and retention, and strive giving extra discretionary effort. Our research is developing this knowledge with greater nuance and distinction.  We now know that it’s more than just the degree of leadership that governs the degree of team and organisational performance.  It’s the style and flavour of that leadership that generates the style and flavour of the services delivered.  Lead with targets, efficiency and a focus on control, and our patients will experience a service that might be on time, but might well be lacking in empathy.  Lead with compassion, care and a focus on improvement, and our patients are more likely to feel cared for by your team.  In simple terms, when it comes to leadership: care in, care out.

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Applying Maslow to business

The other reason I’m thinking about motivation is that I’m constantly disappointed by the endemic grizzling of the media in this country as they pick at the jewel that is our National Health Service. Yes, there are pockets of poor practice. Yes, things can be better. Yes, some organisations, some teams and some individuals should be improved or removed. And yet, sniping at the NHS from a default position of disapproving yet oft uninformed criticism really undermines those working in our NHS.  It picks at the climate and sours the psychological contract of those delivering the emotional labour that is working in healthcare.

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Maslow’s theory

Recognition, engagement and pride are more powerful motivators for the delivery of excellent care than sideline sniping from a media vested in stirring up disappointment. Don’t get me wrong – I want to expose poor practice and raise standards too. But I want a balanced view that also celebrates the amazing service delivered every day by those working in an NHS that touches our lives at times of basic human need, when care and compassion are what matter most.

2 thoughts on “Happy birthday motivation theory

  1. Great piece, interesting view on motivation. An insightful opinion on how motivation drives our practice.

  2. Brilliant blog, bringing the different elements together. Really agree about the relentless negativity about the NHS…yes there are things that need to change and people that shouldn’t ever be let near a patient, however we rarely get to hear the positive stories…I like to read Patient Opinion on Twitter because as well as the awful stories there are some very positive ones.

  3. What a piece from this which has given me more motivation into leadersip. It is very good to have great people who understand the patients need.