Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to Project Management

Applying Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to Project Management

In our last article, we mentioned that what motivates someone differs from person to person and from time to time. Motivation has been shown to relate closely to a person’s needs and these differ throughout our lives. What is interesting is the idea that, as one need is satisfied, another comes along to take its place. Abraham Maslow is credited with uncovering this phenomenon and anyone studying for the Project Management Professional (PMP)© exam needs to be aware of Maslow and what his “hierarchy of needs” is all about

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: A Key Concept for Project Management

During our PMP© courses, we introduce Maslow during the Project Resource Management section, specifically when we are explaining the Manage Team process. Being aware of project team members’ needs helps the Project Manager to offer appropriate incentives during the project.

Meeting Different Needs Throughout the Project Lifecycle

As individuals, our basic need is sustenance. Without food and water, we are hardly going to be concerned about inventing new drugs or speeding up a complicated computer algorithm. Once our physical needs are met, we start worrying about our environment. In primeval times, when our Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon ancestors were struggling to survive, protection from the environment was crucial. Even if the weather was mild, sleeping out under the stars could see you become dinner for a sabre-toothed tiger. So safety and security were major concerns. This saw primitive man seeking refuge in caves – hence the term “caveman”.

Compared to the wildlife that roamed the earth in the old days, man was a very puny creature indeed. However, mankind quickly realized that there was strength in numbers and soon individuals were forming into social groups called tribes. Being part of a tribe was vital to enhance survival. It also provided better opportunities for mating. In Maslow’s terminology, the formation of tribes not only improved the food supply and everyone’s security, it also satisfied our belonging and love needs.

Addressing Individual Needs for Motivation in Project Teams

What more could you want? Frustratingly, once we were established as part of a tribe, new needs started to take the place of the basics. We now craved the esteem of our peers in the tribe. We wanted to be known as a great hunter or warrior or medicine wo/man. Having the respect of the tribe replaced the need for food, security, and company.


But what happens when you get that respect – when you become the chief or a respected elder of the community? Now, according to Maslow, our need for “self-actualization” comes to the fore. This concept he sums up as “what a man can be, he must be”.  This explains why the chief of the tribe decides to uproot the group from its current cave and relocate to another one, where the hunting is better or where there is more fruit and vegetables on offer. In later societies, we see Pharaohs build ever more massive monuments to themselves in order to secure their places in history. Unfortunately, man’s need for self-actualization is behind invasions of others’ territory and the endless wars that our history is littered with.
So what has all this got to do with project management? For a Project Manager, knowing each of the team well enough to appreciate what their concerns are at any given time during the project can help to determine the best motivators to provide.

At first sight, you might think that the sustenance and security needs are already met, so let us concentrate solely on the higher-order needs. Not so. Some of the team might be on specific-purpose contracts and they might be concerned about what happens at the end of the project. Will they get another contract, or will they be looking for work again? If there are possible full-time positions down the line, the Project Manager can ensure high performance by explaining how this particular project will be the basis for their consideration for the full-time roles.

Similarly, someone who is planning to buy a house or get married is likely to be concerned about money. Financial awards, such as a bonus on the successful completion of the project will resonate positively with people in that position. Similarly, younger team members, who are not worried about such matters, might instead be romantically involved and would like time off to spend with their beloveds. These people might balk at projects that cut into their evenings and weekends. A promise of extra time off in lieu at the end of the project might help here.

Developing a Project Team

Project Managers need to Develop the Project Team. This involves building a team identity and, essentially satisfying those belonging and love needs. If everyone is happy to be part of the team; if they feel that being in the team is a good thing, then many of the team’s social needs will be met.
However, once the project team is up and running, team members will seek out the esteem of their peers. The Project Manager can satisfy these needs by giving recognition for good work and by empowering team members to present their work publicly in front of stakeholders and make decisions relating to their own parts of the project.

Finally, the Project Manager needs to be aware of those self-actualization needs. Some technical experts get bored with hands-on work and may need a change into a different role – perhaps a technical mentor/advisor, a technical sales support role, or even a management position. A good leader is someone who develops the talents of the people s/he leads. In fact, a mark of success is if you end up working for someone you once managed yourself.

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