An equilateral triangle finally arrives in 1960, first surfacing in a business journal article called “How Money Motivates Men,” by Charles McDermid, a psychologist at a Wisconsin consulting firm. McDermid calls the top-level need “self realization,” as Davis had, instead of “self-actualization” as Maslow had written, the study points out. Because of this, the researchers suspect that McDermid had simply reimagined Davis’ staircase as a triangular form.

Quoting from McDermid’s essay, the authors find a sort of smoking gun that pulls the flawed version of Maslow’s theory and the pyramid’s implications all together: “Since ‘maximum motivation at lowest cost is the desired end result,’ McDermid advised managers to use Maslow’s theory of motivation, which ‘can be arranged’ as a pyramid, to evaluate the needs of their employees and adjust compensation packages accordingly.”

This is the pyramid that inspired a thousand others, the researchers believe.

The persistent pyramid and how it shaped our view of work

As Bridgman and his fellow researchers note, the hierarchy concept “captured the prevailing [post-war] ideologies of individualism, nationalism and capitalism in America and justified a growing managerialism in bureaucratic (i.e., layered triangular) formats.”

The pyramid happens to mirror the structure of an organization, narrowing at the top. The unspoken implication is that the people on top have more sophisticated needs than those way down at the base. The accepted wisdom becomes that it’s only when an employee moves beyond the rank and file, to a level of higher pay, that “they will be concerned about their self esteem or opportunities, that work will be meaningful to them,” says Bridgman, “and I think that does a real disservice.”

Fowler finds that many executives use the pyramid as “an excuse to not have to deal with people’s psychological issues,” and to set their more complex needs aside. Says Fowler, “It’s kind of like, ‘Well, we can’t afford to give this to everybody at the bottom of the pyramid, so we’ll just assume they’re not going to be motivated by higher-order reasons.'”

Another ill-effect she links to Maslow’s hierarchy is the belief that: “If I made more money, I would be happier. Or, if I had those security needs taking care of, I would be happier, or more motivated to do my job,” says Fowler.  “People get trapped in that,” she argues, “and yet if money was the solution, we wouldn’t see any rich people who suffer. They wouldn’t have divorces or become drug addicts or commit crimes.”

Most damning, perhaps, is the pyramid’s insinuation that there is a finite amount of space at “the top,” and we are all competing against each other to get there. “Really,” says Fowler, “people are ‘self-actualizing’ all over the place.”

Maslow’s earliest writing in fact made it clear that the needs he identified may not be universal, that culture and context mattered, and that the hierarchy may not reflect the same priorities for everyone. So while his needs list may be rightfully slammed, he also wasn’t as naive as critics of the pyramid might like to believe, according to Bridgman. “Maslow was trying to say that people will have these needs arranged differently. Managers really need to understand each and every employee and what motivates them, rather than assume that I can just plop the pyramid over everyone in the organization.”

Maslow was apparently unimpressed by management scholars who saw “his theory of human nature as a means to financial end—short-term profit—rather the end which he saw, a more enlightened citizenry and society,” the authors note, citing Maslow’s 1965 book Eupsychian Management. And yet, he did not distance himself from the pyramid’s popularity.

“Maslow lived to see the pyramid and didn’t really challenge it because of other difficulties he was having in his life, the rejection that he had from psychology,” says Bridgman. “The management people rolled out the red carpet before him, and paid him well, so it suited him well enough, I guess, but it was a long way from what he was writing about.”

Through the 1960s, and more recently, Maslow’s theories were tested in field and lab studies. Under scrutiny, the five needs Maslow had identified and ranked simply didn’t hold up, particularly in other cultures. (Past critics of Maslow’s writing have called his views eurocentric and insensitive to barriers like systemic racism and sexism, which can theoretically prevent some employees from ever “moving up” the hierarchy.)

Maslow’s ideas about self-actualized people were also subjective. Though he described the features of a self-actualized person (they’re humble, grateful, concerned with the good of mankind, self-directed rather than mindlessly conformist, etc.) these were essentially subjective measures. Feeding the “subjectivity” critique, he even named a few individuals, including public figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein, whom he considered to be self-actualized.

The pyramid’s visual punch

By the 1970s, scholars were beginning to give up on Maslow’s imprecise musings, the paper reports, but management textbooks had already come along to rescue the pyramid from possible obscurity. A surge in demand for college-level business schools created a market for textbooks that were both instructional and intellectual, befitting a serious education. Maslow’s pyramid checked off the right boxes.

Fast forward to the late aughts, and management students are usually taught to consider the pyramid a relic of old school thinking. Typically, Bridgman explains, professors introduce the pyramid as the foundational theory of what drives employees, then run through all of the model’s defects.

A common target of attack is the assertion, still often wrongly attributed to Maslow, that people can only rise to the next level of needs after base needs have been satisfied. Indeed, many of us know people whose drive to produce creative work overrides a need for the security of a fat paycheck. As Pedro Monteiro, post-doc researcher at Emlyon business school in Paris, observes on the podcast Talking About Organizations, we’ve also seen that even the most well-fed, secure, and socially connected workers—the coddled employees of Silicon Valley’s wealthy tech giants, for example— don’t necessarily keep “progressing” to reach a superior level of potential.  “If that were so,” says Monteiro, “wouldn’t everyone there be a virtuous sage?”

Still, the pyramid seems to have become a kind of tattoo, a creed applied to management when it was young and still figuring itself out. “I’m going to Serbia, Romania, Russia, Paris, London, Cyprus, Korea, just in the next couple of months,” says Fowler, “and I don’t care where I am speaking, Maslow always comes up.” She has run into Maslow fans who are simply loathe to let go of the pyramid’s logic.

To unpack the pyramid’s staying power and global domination, Bridgman and his colleagues dedicate some of their time to the not insignificant force of the shape itself.  The hierarchy of needs “may be the only management theory that has ‘gone viral’ and become a meme, and it is doubtful that this would have happened if it did not come with packaged in a pyramid with five clear categorical levels,” they write. It’s an ancient symbol of strength, they point out, and of human striving to reach the deities stationed above us.

Nicholas Pajerski, a designer and architect at WeWork in San Francisco, finds this line of reasoning convincing.  When you think about European cathedrals, he says, or “what we call the pyramids in Egypt or a Ziggurat forms in Mesoamerica, there’s definitely a trace in architectural history, which in some ways can be reduced to going upward and inward.”

Today, he adds, not only is there a fetishization of height in the way we build, but also in the way we “program” our buildings, making penthouses the most spacious and splendid of living quarters or hotel rooms, or giving the boss the corner office on the 38th floor. “I do think there is this implicit sort of socioeconomic, philosophical pursuit of getting as high as you can,” Pajerski concludes.

There’s even a property in South Africa, the Maslow Hotel, that’s designed in layers that are progressively smaller from bottom to top, and that together suggest a pyramid. On its website, we learn that the Maslow Hotel “aspires to create an environment that optimally satisfies the fundamental needs of the individual so that the mind is free to achieve its highest potential, self-actualisation.”

Where do we go next?

In their attempt to disentangle Maslow from the idea of a pyramid, the researchers behind the new study’s scholarly sleuthing face an important limitation: they’re setting out to prove a negative. Not every historian will be convinced by the conclusion that Maslow himself didn’t organize the hierarchy of needs in that way. If evidence is one day found that links Maslow to the pyramid, then what?

But to Bridgman and his team, the murkiness of the pyramid’s origins raises bigger questions about accepted wisdom in management theory, and its history of borrowing ideas from psychology or economics that are “filtered through our field’s long-standing commitments to free-market capitalism, managerialism, organizational hierarchies, and the primacy of the individual.” (In another paper, Bridgman and Cummings, along with Colm McLaughlin of the University College Dublin, questioned the official history of the Harvard Business School case study.)

Maslow’s pyramid is still very much in the mix in public talks about corporate success, company culture, and employee engagement. Start paying attention, and you’ll be amazed by its prevalence.

Meanwhile, the study of motivation has become a massive field, drawing a wide variety of academics in management studies and psychology. We’re constantly exposed to new ideas by contemporary thinkers. Some build on the traditions of behaviorism, but many contain the essence of Maslow’s initial vision. For instance, Fowler considers self-determination theory—which argues that all employees require autonomy, relatedness, and competence—an improvement on Maslow, one that she says is scientifically tested. “For me, it’s where Maslow would have gone over the past 60 years,” she says.  

Despite long-held misconceptions about Maslow’s pyramid, there’s also a growing awareness of the value of seeing the full human potential in every employee. Companies like Zappos, Disney, or Four Seasons Hotels are praised for encouraging employees to express their own creativity, and for giving employees in every position the freedom to make decisions and solve problems without consulting a manager or mindlessly sending issues up the chain.

Just last month, at the Bloomberg Equality Summit in New York, Arianna Huffington proposed that we’re moving into an era when more companies will have to think holistically about caring for their employees, all of them, and all of their needs, at once. Her vision sounded nothing at all like a pyramid-shaped hierarchy.

Textbook authors take note

Within a week or so of their study appearing online, where it’s available for free until April 28, Bridgman and his co-authors began hearing from management experts and textbook authors who said they planned to update their work. But they also heard from an author who had already encountered pushback from reviewers (who are likely to be faculty members) when she attempted to remove the pyramid from her text.

“Radical changes can alienate teachers, who most likely don’t want to make major changes to their courses,” Bridgman told us via email. “They know what students like and remember (the pyramid) and are reluctant to shift, even in light of evidence that the pyramid isn’t Maslow’s.”

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