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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Hiring Pyramid According to Adler

by Jun 28, 2012, 5:39 am ET

Just about all of us are familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Abraham Maslow was a mid-20th century psychologist who studied the behavior of high-performing individuals. In a 1943 paper, he suggested that people make fundamental and predictable decisions based on different behavioral needs. These needs range from primitive; e.g., requiring water or food to being completely fulfilled. He separated these states into five distinct levels and referred to them collectively as a hierarchy of needs. According to Maslow, a person couldn’t move to a higher level unless the needs of the lower level were satisfied first.

While this is interesting stuff, the point of this article is to suggest that both people and companies have similar underlying needs, and when these are at cross purposes, hiring top people is inefficient, ineffective, and problematic.

A very simplified business version of Maslow’s hierarchy is shown in the diagram. The idea behind this is that when assessing a candidate’s motivation for work, it’s most likely one of three core needs: economic, social, or achievement. These are shown in the diagram. The problem is that while companies all want to hire those with the need to achieve, they only consider those who first have an economic need to apply, and second,  those among this group who the screeners believe also fit some idealistic and unspoken personality and first-impression standard. I’d suggest that this two-step, bottoms-up process, is at the root cause of why companies can’t hire enough top people.

Once you understand Maslow from the candidate’s perspective, you’ll quickly see how most companies fall into this hiring trap. Better: you’ll also discover the secret of getting out of it.

A person who is unemployed, or holding a job far below the person’s earning ability, seeks a new job primarily for monetary reasons, with the actual work less important. This is the economic need in action. The second motivating need is team-driven. Many people leave companies due to lack of a supportive manager or an inability to develop personal relationships with co-workers. They also accept jobs for these very same reasons. The third job-seeking driver is career growth: the need to achieve, grow, and become better. The Achievers leave when this is missing.

Knowing what underlying need is driving your candidate to look for another job is essential if you want to find and hire the right people for the right reasons. For example, a passive candidate who is not looking might be enticed to explore a situation if it offered significant upside potential and achievement. There is a lot of recruiting involved in this type of hire, with the emphasis largely on short-term impact and long-term career growth. On the other hand, if the candidate is driven by a short-term economic need, the person will likely be less discriminating and take a position primarily for the salary and benefits. The problem is that once these lower order economic needs are filled, dissatisfaction with the work itself will quickly follow.

Gallup’s Q12 research and Google’s Oxygen study on employee engagement and performance supports this viewpoint. Job satisfaction is driven by doing impactful work, a chance to work with strong teams, and a chance to progress and grow. Dissatisfaction is largely due to lack of a supportive manager, doing less-meaningful work, or doing work far below a person’s capability, and lack of collaboration with others. The best people accept jobs based on expectations of the former and leave them because of the reality of the latter. Much of the problems associated with underperformance, dissatisfaction, and retention occur when the hiring decision is made. Surprisingly, few companies consider this directly, resorting to fixing the problem after the fact.

The hiring trap starts by using the traditional skills- and experience-based job description for advertising purposes. These don’t appeal to anyone who is driven primarily by an achievment need. A job that emphasizes skills and experience sends a message to candidates that the company has plenty of people to choose from, and the candidates need us more than we need them. This certainly won’t attract many passive candidates to apply. These types of postings only attract someone with an economic need to apply, or someone in a sub-par job situation. The likelihood of attracting an achiever under these conditions is problematic, especially when the demand for talent is greater than the supply. (Here’s an interesting video I did with LinkedIn on how to address this supply vs. demand situation.)

As far as the hiring trap is concerned, things are about to go from bad to worse. For most companies, the bulk of their hiring starts by selecting a subset of people from a pool of candidates who initially applied for something other than a need to further their career growth. These people are then filtered on their level of skills and experience, hoping to weed out the weakest, with the goal of selecting the most qualified, often through a strenuous technical screen that’s rarely fully job-related. Then the finalists undergo some superficial team and cultural fit assessment. Those who “perform” the best are then deemed worthy.

Consider this same process from the Maslow hierarchy perspective: companies first target those with an economic need for the job who also meet their “team” and “fit” criteria. These are the so-called “soft” skills. These same companies quickly reject people if they appear, act, or seem different than the norm, or those who make weak first impressions. On the flipside, when candidates who fit the instant “team” and cultural fit screen, managers, and recruiters alike go Lady Gaga, and go out their way to sell these candidates on the merits of the job.

What about the true achievers? Under the type of scenario described above, it’s unlikely the company is going to find many great people who also have an economic need to apply, who also make great first impressions, and who are also high-achievers.

Despite the obvious, this is the expectation. People who are driven to change jobs in order to accelerate their career growth, are stopped long before they get to the front door. Since many of the people who aspire for this type of achievement are passive candidates, they won’t follow the standard interview and apply and prepare regimen. Sometimes they’re a little different in personality and style, sometimes appear less interested, maybe too over-confident, or somewhat inflexible. The real issue is they won’t take lateral transfers and until they see the job as a real career move they won’t get too excited. Job descriptions that emphasize skills and experience, prevent and preclude these people from ever applying, and even if they do apply, they’re deemed too light.

Without an overarching talent strategy and breakthrough processes to offset the tendency to maintain the status quo, progress is unlikely. Attracting and hiring top people who are driven by the need to achieve starts by redefining performance, eliminating counterproductive hiring process, and implementing a talent scarcity hiring model for all critical hiring needs. Until then, companies will continue to push the proverbial rock uphill, hoping beyond hope they’ll soon be at the top.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Martin Snyder

    I like that Lou.

    The science is very solid that beyond money, and notably for work involving thinking skills, the three key drivers to motivation and satisfaction are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Direct pursuit of those values can mitigate many mistakes.

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  • Will Hamilton

    Interesting piece Lou.

    What is your view on the use of video interviews to build cultural fit screening into the early stages of the selection process?

  • Lou Adler

    @Will – video is not the issue, what counts is how you plan on measuring cultural fit. Since, 80% of cultural fit relates to the hiring manager and the team the person works with, it’s hard to develop some generic template that’s accurate. I was just in Moscow working with a high-tech company and each department – marketing, development, accounting, legal, project management – each had its own culture – which only loosely mapped to the overall culture.

    Another point – most people who take a great person who is different than the norm due to the person’s abilities to move the company forward. A culture screen would actually screen these types of people out. Finding people who don’t meet the culture might be a better thing to do.

    Even bigger point – a culture screen at the beginning is the worst possible thing to do – basically ir implies we only want to hire people just like us who also have an economic need to apply. In my opinion this is strategic hiring mistake that will result in only seeing and hiring average talent.

    But thanks for asking – it’s great to back in the USA!


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