Using Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in Communications

9/27/2011 Carsten Howitz Project 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 it is of outmost 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 going to be 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 vehicle with the lights on shows up in the rear 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 cop passes right by him and then he 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 of 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 needs 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 layer). 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 workflow. 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 problem solve based on the fast 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 you personal life. It’s a lot of fun!


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