One of the most often cited bits of psychology that haunts the corridors of organisations and management training is Abraham Maslow’s 1940s theory of human motivation, The Hierarchy of Needs. As with any well established model, there is critique, but nonetheless it forms a useful and popular way of visualising what it is that motivates us as creatures.

Maslow's five-tier model taken from Wikipedia at's_hierarchy_of_need
Maslow’s five-tier model

Maslow’s model proposes that there are a series of additive layers upon which we build our lives, at the base forming core physiological needs for sustenance and shelter, progressing through needs for safety, belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation (the ability to achieve one’s full potential, whatever that might mean).

In a workshop yesterday, the model came up as we talked about the nature of the services that we provide as an organisation to our customers. It’s not a lens that I’ve ever looked through before, but it makes for a really interesting analysis.

Let’s start with some other products or services.

A tin of beans. Firmly down in the Physiological needs. Eat beans you live. Don’t eat beans you don’t (although other foods are available).

How about the supermarket in which you buy the beans? Well, at core a supermarket is providing both physiological and safety needs. The food and drink that you need to consume, plus a safe and secure environment in which to buy it. There is also safety in the assurance that the supermarket brands and supply chains offer to us. This is why the horsemeat scandal of a few years back caused so much consternation. it was attacking trust that we had built at the lower levels of the Maslow hierarchy.

But there is more. Supermarkets do a great deal to build up loyalty to their brand. Loyalty cards are more than just data surveillance. They are a way of building belongingness and love between customer and provider. Don’t believe me? Think about how many of us always go to the same supermarket brand and feel someone a sense of betrayal going to another.

Supermarkets even tap into Esteem needs, both through their overall brand (Are you “Waitrose”?) and also through their sub-brands (“Finest”…) and the third party brands that they sell.

They also have the ability to negatively impact on their customers, almost unwittingly. “Unexpected item in the packing area” is essentially the supermarket accusing you of stealing. That’s quite a break in trust.

Different suppliers tap into different elements of all of this in differentiation from other brands. A BMW is servicing a different set of needs to a Tesla, but both are tapping in higher up the pyramid than a Ford or a Toyota. You are buying self-esteem if you buy a BMW, even if you’re not buying a more considerate driving style.

So what about the world of social housing?

Well, there is little more fundamental to someone in terms of their needs that a home. A housing provider’s core service is to offer physiological and safety needs to their customers.

As we move up the scale, whilst a housing provider doesn’t necessary provide Love and belonging as part of their service offer (although certainly with more assisted accommodation that probably should be part of the service), we have a role to play in forming and maintaining the communities in which people live. We are active stakeholders.

The services that we provide also form a foundation for the higher levels of the Maslow hierarchy, but that is a double-edged sword. Providing someone with a place that they can call home will undoubtedly give them the opportunity to build self esteem. But the ways in which housing providers interact with their customers can have a huge impact on those customers’ sense of self esteem. If we come across as not caring, or not trusting them, what impact will that have? If the organisation that provides you with such core needs appears uncaring, what impact might that have on an individual or family?

My hunch is that it can be fairly far-reaching if done well or done badly.

But so what? An interesting diversion, but how does this help to define and deliver better services?

First of all, it gives a way to understand the potential primary and secondary impacts of changes to services. Is asking people to channel shift, or determining to spend less time on the phone with people, going to have an impact on higher-order needs that might make customers’ lives less easy? Does building or breaking trust with people make doing our work easier or harder overall?

But secondly it maybe gives a lens through which it becomes easier to understand against whom we should benchmark ourselves? Rather than comparing ourselves to higher-order providers we should compare ourselves to business and organisations that provide services at the more fundamental base of the pyramid – healthcare providers, utility companies, blue light services and so on?

And in that, maybe we should also look to see how excellent examples of service provision in those sectors work and see what practices we can learn from and adopt as a result.

One thought on “Maslow’s hierarchy of User Needs

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