rAcademy of Management Learning & Education
2019, Vol. 18, No. 1, 81–98.
WHO BUILT MASLOW’S PYRAMID?
A HISTORY OF THE CREATION OF MANAGEMENT
STUDIES’MOST FAMOUS SYMBOL AND ITS IMPLICATIONS
FOR MANAGEMENT EDUCATION
Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
Mount St. Joseph University, Cincinnati, Ohio
Abraham Maslow’s theory of motivation, the idea that human needs exist in a hierarchy
that people strive to satisfy progressively, is regarded as a fundamental approach to
understanding and motivating people at work. It is one of the first and most remembered
models encountered by students of management. Despite gaining little support in em-
pirical studies and being criticized for promoting an elitist, individualistic view of
management, Maslow’s theory remains popular, underpinned by its widely recognized
pyramid form. However, Maslow never created a pyramid to represent the hierarchy of
needs. We investigated how it came to be and draw on this analysis to call for a rethink
of how Maslow is represented in management studies. We also challenge management
educators to reflect critically on what are taken to be the historical foundations of
management studies and the forms in which those foundations are taught to students.
“Why has the hierarchy of needs been so popular? The
appeal of the pyramid image should not be under-
estimated ::: Maslow might have chosen a different
icon (e.g., a Native American medicine wheel) but it
would not have had the same iconic appeal”
(Peterson & Park, 2010: 320).
Abraham Maslow may be the most “iconic figure in
the history of management ideas”(Cooke, Mills, &
Kelley, 2005: 133). Why? Largely because the pyra-
mid or triangle1of human needs is likely the most
famous image in management studies. The idea that
human needs exist in a hierarchy form, with basic,
extrinsic needs at the bottom, and that employees are
motivated to satisfy each need level as they progress
up the pyramid until they realize their true potential
through the gratification of their “self-actualization,”
is typically the first theory of motivation presented to
management students and the theory of management
that they recall most vividly.
The pyramid is a useful point for management text-
books to start their presentation of motivation theories
(often the first content described beyond introductory
material), because it is seen to be “intuitively logical
and easy to understand,”and reinforces a common-
sense view of human nature (Robbins & Judge, 2015:
218; Schaller, Neuberg, Griskevicius, & Kenrick, 2010).
Students learn that managers should design work and
benefits in a way that allows employees to satisfy their
needs (Ballard, 2015: 32–33), thus leading to increased
job satisfaction, commitment, and organizational per-
formance. Some instructors and textbooks may suggest
that skilled managers should understand where each
of their employees is locatedonthepyramidandtailor
their roles accordingly.
Management textbooks further ingrain the idea of
Maslow’s Pyramid in the minds of readers as they
criticize Maslow and his theory. They claim it is
simplistic to believe that people are motivated to
satisfy just one category of need at a time; that a
universal classification across all individuals and all
We are grateful to Lizette Royer Barton, MLIS, Reference
Archivist at the Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings
Center for the History of Psychology, the University of
Akron, for assisting us in accessing the archives.
1Some sources we investigated present it as a pyramid;
others present a triangle. For consistency and to avoid
confusion, we refer to it as “pyramid”throughout; how-
ever, in most presentations of Maslow’s theory it appears in
two dimensions as a triangle.
Copyright of the Academy of Management, all rights reserved. Contents may not be copied, emailed, posted to a listserv, or otherwise transmitted without the copyright holder’s express
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cultures is problematic; and that, in any case, it is
unscientific, being based on personal beliefs rather
than objective evidence (Hitt, Black, Porter, &
Hanson, 2007; Robbins, Bergman, Stagg, & Coulter,
2015). These criticisms are useful for textbooks’se-
quencing, as they describe the evolution of motiva-
tion theories from the early more basic approaches to
the more advanced and sophisticated. For example,
textbooks usually follow Maslow with a discussion
of Clayton Alderfer (1969) and his ERG theory.
Although there is some variation in the naming of
the five category levels in the image, what remains
constant is the symbol that has become synonymous
with Maslow: the pyramid. Two management books
published on the initiative of Maslow’s daughter,
Ann Kaplan, make note of the “now famous pyra-
mid”(Stephens, 2000: 1; Stephens & Heil, 1998: xx).
In Maslow on Management, (Stephens & Heil, 1998, a
reprint of Maslow’s 1965 work Eupsychian Man-
agement, with an introduction by the editors), a
pyramid motif appears at the start of each chapter, a
testament to its significance. The online preface
to a popular podcast, Talking About Organizations,
sums up the common view: “What Maslow is most
famous for ::: is the pyramid of human needs”
“Maslow’s Pyramid”is pervasive beyond man-
agement studies. In psychology Maslow is regarded as
one of its most eminent theorists of the last century
(Haggbloom et al., 2002) so it is not surprising that the
representation of his work has attracted attention
(Koltko-Rivera, 2006; Wininger, & Norman, 2010). In
Perspectives on Psychological Science, Kenrick,
Griskevicius, Neuberg, and Schaller (2010) asserted
that “the powerful image of a pyramid of needs ::: has
been one of the most cognitively contagious ideas in
the behavioral sciences”(p. 292). Drawing on de-
velopments in evolutionary biology, anthropology,
and psychology, Kenrick et al. concluded that “the
basic foundational structure of the pyramid is worth
preserving, but ::: it should be buttressed with a few
architectural extensions”(p. 292). The significance of
Kenrick et al.’s article is attested to by the four com-
mentaries included alongside it. In their reply to these,
Kenrick and colleagues (Schaller et al., 2010: 335)
concluded that “people love a pyramid,”and asked
readers to ponder “exactly how might a Maslovian
pyramid be most sensibly reconstructed in light of
what we [now] know about human evolution?”
Many of the works that promote the pyramid, cri-
tique or seek to develop it, cite either or both of Mas-
low’stwo“classics”on his motivation theory: the 1943
article in Psychological Review andaneditionofhis
book Motivation and Personality (1954, 1970, or 1987)
to link the pyramid to Maslow. However, the pyramid
does not appear in them (De Bruyckere, Kirschner, &
Hulshof, 2015; Eaton, 2013). We delved deeper to see
if we might find how Maslow’s Pyramid came to be.
Maslow was a prolific writer of personal journals
(Maslow 1979a,b) as well as published work, with
his bibliography containing more than 140 entries
(Maslow, 1972). But having conducted an extensive
search, including in the Maslow archives at the
Center for the History of Psychology at the University
of Akron in Ohio, we found no trace of Maslow
framing his ideas in pyramid form. Further, we con-
tacted a range of people whom we thought could
provide personal insights: from Ed Schein, who
worked with many of the people in this story,
to others familiar with Maslow’s involvement with
Native American nations. Although they assumed
that Maslow had developed the pyramid, they ad-
mitted that they could not recall his presenting it this
way. We can say, with confidence, that Maslow’s
Pyramid (in the sense of him having created it) is a
misconception, albeit a widespread and compel-
“But having conducted an extensive search, including in
the Maslow archives at the Center for the History of
Psychology at the University of Akron in Ohio, we found
no trace of Maslow framing his ideas in pyramid form.”
Our article builds on others that have noted the
unhelpful, continual reproduction of Maslow’s Pyr-
amid in management textbooks (Fineman & Gabriel,
1994)—either because it does not pass critical scru-
tiny (Watson, 1996), or because it was “merely a
stepping-stone in the grand scheme of his work”
(Dye, Mills, & Weatherbee, 2005: 1380). That his in-
tellectual contribution has been “bastardized :::
and reduced to a parody”(Mills, Simmons, & Helms
Mills, 2005: 133) is a fair assessment.
Our contribution to this literature is to examine
in detail how the pyramid came to be, as well as
its negative effects. We uncover the role played by
various individuals and institutions. In the 1950s,
Douglas McGregor brought Maslow’s psychological
work into management studies, and Keith Davis
adapted Maslow’s idea to give weight to a fledgling
field. In the 1960s, Charles McDermid promoted
Maslow’s theory in pyramid form, as a tool for con-
sultants. Also, in this decade, the desire for manage-
ment research to be more scientific saw Maslow’s
82 MarchAcademy of Management Learning & Education
theory become a focal point for the emergent field
of organizational behavior. In the 1970s and 1980s,
textbook writers found the pyramid to be just the kind
of illustrative content for which they were looking.
From the 1990s through today, Maslow’s Pyramid has
taken on a life of its own in our culture, as an exem-
plar of effective visual communication and an easily
adapted meme. This symbolism has seen the pyramid
become more ingrained in our consciousness.
An understanding of the pyramid’s origins can
encourage us to think differently about how Maslow
could be represented within management studies, to
provide a more meaningful legacy than a symbol he
never created. It can also be the catalyst for a deeper
questioning of our field’s historical foundations and
how they are taught to students. Recent interest in
reexamining these foundations shows that Maslow
is not the only theorist whose ideas have been mis-
appropriated. Were they alive today, founding “fa-
thers,”such as Adam Smith (Huhn & Dierksmeier,
2016); Max Weber (Cummings & Bridgman, 2011;
Mills, Weatherbee, & Durepos, 2014); Douglas McGregor
(Jacques, 2006); and Kurt Lewin (Cummings, Bridgman,
& Brown, 2016) would have difficulty recognizing the
ways in which their ideas are presented in textbooks.
Meanwhile, in addition to these misrepresentations,
the pioneering contributions of women and people
from ethnic minorities are largely ignored (Cummings
& Bridgman, 2016; Prieto, Phipps, Osiri, & LeCounte,
We return to that debate later in the paper. First, we
begin with the case of Maslow’s Pyramid and address
the question of why it prevails and is so prominent in
our teaching. The pyramid’s popularity is not related
to a clear filial connection to Maslow. Nor is it related
to empirical validation studies, which have proven
disappointing (Alderfer, 1969; Hall & Nougaim,
1968; Porter, 1961). Furthermore, its ubiquity can-
not be attributed to Maslow being the first psychol-
ogist to develop a theory of human needs. Langer
(1937) presented a theory with physical, social, and
egoistic needs. In an early human relations textbook,
Strauss and Sayles (1960) included both Langer and
Maslow. So how did Maslow’s Pyramid come to
pass, and how has its popularity grown?
THE RISE OF THE PYRAMID:
FROM OBSCURE HYPOTHESIS TO
Although Maslow never presented his hierarchy of
needs (hereafter HON) in a diagram or geometrically,
there was once a competing shape used to present it. It
was not a triangle or a pyramid, but a ladder (see,
e.g., Wren, 1972). A Google n-gram search of the terms
Maslow’sPyramidand Maslow’s ladder reveals that
theory until the 1980s, when the pyramid became
dominant. What follows is the story of how the pyra-
mid rose to overcome this alternative representation,
become synonymous with the HON, and establish
itself as management’s best-known theory.
“Were they alive today, founding ‘fathers,’such as
Adam Smith (Huhn & Dierksmeier, 2016); Max Weber
(Cummings & Bridgman, 2011; Mills, Weatherbee, &
Durepos, 2014); Douglas McGregor (Jacques, 2006); and
Kurt Lewin (Cummings, Bridgman, & Brown, 2016)
would have difficulty recognizing the ways in which
their ideas are presented in textbooks.”
Maslow to McGregor:
Monkeys, Sex, Motivation, Management
Maslow’s early career developed within behavioral
psychology. As a doctoral student at the University of
Wisconsin advised by Harry Harlow, he studied pri-
mate behavior. In 1935 at a meeting of the American
Psychological Association, he presented a paper on
the relationship between dominance behavior and
sexual behavior in monkeys. The chair of the session
was the eminent psychologist Edward Thorndike.
Thorndike offered Maslow a fellowship and research
assistant position at Columbia University. In 1937
Maslow left Columbia and accepted a teaching posi-
tion at Brooklyn College. Maslow was now on his own,
free to pursue his own direction (Lowry, 1973).
In December 1941 Maslow had a revelation. Sit-
ting in his car, watching a parade of veterans pass
by, he reflected on the world going to war once again.
At that moment, he resolved to devote his life to
developing a “psychology for the peace table”
(Hoffman, 1988: 148). Maslow wanted “a psychology
that would speak to human potential and whole-
ness”(Ballard, 2006: 2). He saw biological needs as
prepotent and needing to be satisfied, but once sat-
isfied, higher level needs could emerge. Because of
the prepotency of lower level needs, there must,
he concluded, be a need hierarchy. In 1943 he
presented his theory to a New York gathering of
psychoanalytic psychologists and later that year
published it in Psychological Review.
2019 83Bridgman, Cummings, and Ballard
The HON appears to have been well-received,
but Maslow may have had no significant impact
on management studies were it not for Douglas
McGregor. McGregor encountered it in 1944 and
drew on it in developing his famous Theory X and
Theory Y concept.2In 1956 McGregor wrote to
Maslow after presenting the HON to a group of senior
executives: “We had a long discussion on the im-
plications of your self-actualization concept and it
was quite clear that the whole idea not only made
sense but fired their imagination because of its im-
plications in industry”(McGregor letter to Maslow,
November 16, 1956. Maslow Papers M395).
The reception by the executives fired McGregor’s
imagination too. The following year, he included
the HON in an address he gave at MIT (McGregor,
Perhaps the best way to indicate why the conven-
tional approach of management is inadequate is to
consider the subject of motivation. In discussing this
subject, I will draw heavily on the work of my col-
league, Abraham Maslow of Brandeis University. His
is the most fruitful approach I know. Naturally, what I
have to say will be overgeneralized and will ignore
important qualifications, in the time at our disposal,
this is inevitable.
In September 1957, McGregor wrote to Maslow
again, enclosing a copy of his MIT address, ex-
pressing his hope that Maslow would approve of
the way he had used the HON, and asking if there was
further research support for self-actualization be-
yond what had appeared in Motivation and Person-
ality (McGregor letter to Maslow, September 26,
1957 Maslow Papers M397). Maslow told McGregor
he had done “a very fine job”and promised to send
him all his recent papers (Maslow letter to McGregor,
October 9, 1957, Maslow Papers M397). It is not clear
if these papers were sent; in any event, Maslow had
not done any further research, because by this time
he had lost interest in empirical research. Others
could do the empirical tests if they wished, but he
saw that as a distraction from his role as the innovator
and pioneer of new ideas (Hoffman, 1988).
An article based on McGregor’s MIT address
was reprinted in Management Review (McGregor,
1957b), a publication sent to all 30,000 members of
the American Management Association (by far the
largest management interest group at the time). For
reasons unknown, however, the statement about
Maslow inspiring Theory X and Y was omitted from
the reprint, as was McGregor’s comment about how
he had overgeneralized Maslow’s ideas. Although
the paper drew heavily on the HON, there was no
citation or reference to Maslow.
“For reasons unknown, however, the statement about
Maslow inspiring Theory X and Y was omitted from the
reprint, as was McGregor’s comment about how he had
overgeneralized Maslow’s ideas.”
In his classic The Human Side of Enterprise (1960),
McGregor did not reference Maslow’s HON as he
discussed the hierarchy, but he did include Motiva-
tion and Personality in a reference list at the end of
Chapter 3 on page 44. The book had a transformational
effect on the nascent field of organizational behavior
(or “human relations,”as it was known then). Indeed,
in 1974 identified it as the most seminal contribution
to the management literature (Matteson, 1974).
A close reading of The Human Side of Enterprise
reveals the heavy influence of Maslow’s thinking.
McGregor’sphrase“man is a wanting animal”(1960:
36) resembles Maslow’s“man is a perpetually wanting
animal”(1943: 370); and McGregor’s“Man lives by
bread alone, when there is no bread”(1960: 36) is very
close to Maslow’s“It is quite true that man lives by
bread alone—when there is no bread”(1943: 375). So,
although it is generally held today that The Human
Side of Enterprise “catalyzed Maslow’s growing im-
pact on business theorists and executives, and brought
him fame”(Hoffman, 1999: 251), at the time of its
publication, and for some time after, Maslow’s influ-
ence was obscured. It is understandable, in this light,
that Huizinga concluded in 1970 “that most people
if it were a part of Theory Y, and therefore omit to
mention its real source”(1970: 54).
McGregor’s incorporation of Maslow’s thinking
into his work in this obscure fashion facilitated later
misinterpretations of Maslow and might have con-
tributed to others placing the HON in a pyramid. For
2It has been believed that it took nearly 15 years from the
1943 paper in Psychological Review for Maslow’s theo-
rizing to appear in the management domain. However, a
chapter by McGregor in Hoslett’s (1946) Human Factors in
Management reveals that McGregor was influenced by
Maslow far earlier. The chapter is a reproduction of a paper
McGregor published in Journal of Consulting Psychology
in 1944 and shows the influence of Maslow’s earlier work
on human needs on McGregor’s thinking about the de-
pendence of subordinates on their superiors for the satis-
faction of their needs.
84 MarchAcademy of Management Learning & Education
example, among the most popular criticisms of the
hierarchy of needs today is the view that people are
motivated to satisfy only one need at the time, that a
need must be fully satisfied before they move to a
higher level need on the pyramid, and that a satisfied
need is no longer a motivator of behavior. This view
is promulgated by McGregor, not Maslow. McGregor
(1960: 39, emphasis in original) summarizes: “The
man whose lower-level needs are satisfied is not
motivated to satisfy those needs. For practical pur-
poses they exist no longer.”
Maslow (1943: 388) himself was clear that such a
view would be a “false impression”of his theory. In
explaining his need categories, Maslow presented ex-
treme examples. For instance, a man who is starving is
overwhelmed by the physiological need to satisfy his
hunger: “such a man may fairly be said to live by bread
alone”(p. 374). But he was quick to point out that such
situations are rare—most people “are partially satis-
fied in all their basic needs and partially unsatisfied in
all their basic needs at the same time”(p. 388). Maslow
is adamant that “any behavior tends to be determined
by several or all of the basic needs simultaneously
rather than by only one of them”(1943: 390, emphasis
in original). Acknowledging this nuance would make a
ladder a more appropriate representation than a pyr-
amid (if a geometric representation is necessary),
since, as promoters of good design point out, a hierar-
chical triangle “promotes the presentation of levels
that must be addressed separately before these are
transcended and higher levels moved up to”(Lidwell,
Holdon, & Butler, 2003).
Another common critique of Maslow today relates to
the pyramid’s universalizing assumption that all in-
dividuals in all societies have the same needs arranged
according to its hierarchy and are pursued in the same
order. Once again though, although this assumption
is promoted by McGregor’suseofMaslow’sideas,it
is rejected by Maslow himself. Maslow (1943: 387)
acknowledged that while most of his clinical patients
seemed to have their needs arranged in his needs hi-
erarchy, there were “a number of exceptions.”For
some, self-esteem was more important than love. The
most important exception was the “martyrs,”who are
prepared to sacrifice lower level needs in the pursuit of
self-actualization. Maslow (1943: 390) was clear that
“no claim is made that [self-actualization] is ultimate or
universal for all cultures.”
Yet another area of slippage between Maslow and
interpreters concerns the labels given to each of the
five need levels that are now understood to make up
the pyramid. Table 1 compares those presented in
Maslow’s original 1943 paper, three editions of Moti-
vation and Personality,McGregor’s descriptions in his
1957 and 1960 publications, two contemporary books
which discuss Maslow’s legacy to management, as
well as a small selection of top-selling management
textbooks. Robbins et al.’s (2015) treatment is typical,
with the third level being “social”needs. Their source
is the 1987 edition of Motivation and Personality,but
neither this edition, nor the t wo which preceded it, use
this term. In Motivation and Personality Maslow
added “belongingness”to “love”as the description of
the third needs level developed in 1943, but he did not
use the label “social.”Similarly, Bateman and Snell
(2009: 482) cited Maslow (1943) as the source of their
pyramid, which has “social”and “ego”needs—
neither of which were used in that paper. McGregor,
we suggest, is the likely inventor of these labels, since
they appear in all published forms of The Human Side
of Enterprise in 1957 and 1960.
Davis and McDermid, Pyramid Pioneers
Although McGregor did much to popularize Mas-
low’s ideas in management, no pyramids or triangles
appear in McGregor’s works. The first published
The Development of Maslow’s Five Levels of Motivation
Stephens & Heil (1998)
Maslow on Management;
Maslow Business Reader
Schermerhorn et al.
(2014); Robbins et al.
self-actualization self-actualization self-fulfillment self-realization self-actualization self-actualization
esteem esteem ego esteem esteem esteem
social social social social
safety safety safety safety safety safety
physiological physiological physiological physiological physiological physiological
2019 85Bridgman, Cummings, and Ballard
triangular representation of the HON we found was
in Keith Davis’s (1957) Human Relations in Business
(see Figure 1). It is not an equilateral triangle as the
pyramid will become, but a series of steps in a right-
angled triangle leading to a peak. Davis would be
unfamiliar to most scholars now, but he was active in
the Academy of Management in the late 1950s,
(eventually becoming its President in 1964), and at
the forefront of discussions about the field’s emerg-
ing status as a profession. He is described by man-
agement’s most highly regarded historians as “Mr.
Human Relations”for his profound influence on
the emerging field (Wren & Bedeian, 2009: 44). To
elevate management’s status within the university,
Davis (1957) argued that the field needed to take the
teaching of its history more seriously. To be respect-
ed outside the university, management academics
needed to position themselves as experts (Davis,
1959). The triangular symbol that Davis created out
of the HON addressed these issues: The triangle with
steps captured the thinking of an important figure in
the history of an established discipline of which
management could claim to be a new branch. Addi-
tionally, it helped those sharing their expertise in
industries with an easily applicable model. Davis’s
addition of the specifically business-attired White
An early rendition of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. From Human Relations in Business (p. 41), Davis, 1957.
Reprinted with permission from McGraw-Hill Education.
SELF - RESPECT
1 st 2 nd 3 rd 4 th 5 th
ORDER OF PRIORITY
86 MarchAcademy of Management Learning & Education
executive (Maslow’s idea was a theory of motivation
for all people), prefigured the HON’s importation
into the corporate world of the 1960s. It was clearly
pitched for the American market too, as the flag-
raising is reminiscent of the famous image of the flag-
raising on Iwo Jima (Cooke & Mills, 2008).
Although Davis did not invent the pyramid that we
associate with the HON today, it appears his stepped
diagram was the inspiration for what appears to be
the first rendition of the pyramid. This appears in
Charles McDermid’s article, “How Money Motivates
Men,”published in Business Horizons in 1960 (see
Figure 2).3McDermid was a consulting psychologist
for the firm Humber, Mundie, and McClary. Because
“maximum motivation at lowest cost is the desired
end result,”McDermid (1960: 98) advised managers
to use Maslow’s theory of motivation, which “can be
arranged”as a pyramid (p. 94) to evaluate the needs
of their employees and adjust compensation pack-
ages accordingly. Although McDermid did not cite
Davis in any way, that he does not use “self-actual-
ization”(the term used by Maslow), or McGregor’s
“self-fulfillment, but “self-realization”(the term that
Davis had substituted), suggests that Davis’s inter-
pretation influenced McDermid’s ideas.
McDermid’s was not the first attempt to develop
an easy to remember and easy to apply motivation
framework for managers. A year earlier, Robert K.
Burns (1959: 123, emphasis in original) published a
similarly oriented paper in Public Personnel Review,
with a typology of needs and a catchy phrase: “Taken
together the first letters of these four needs—security,
opportunity, acceptance, and recognition, spell soar—
which is what happens to the motivation of men if
these needs are met on the job.”Butitwasthepyramid,
not Burn’s acronym that took flight.
1970s and 80s:
More Science, More Textbooks
In this section, we discuss two main factors that
helped Maslow’s HON in pyramid form grow in the
consciousness of those studying management. First,
the 1960s and 70s brought a wave of serious re-
searchers seeking to study management scientifi-
cally with a testable theory, one that appeared to fit
well with the most common object of their inquiries:
people in large hierarchical organizations. Second,
in the 1970s and 1980s, Maslow’s Pyramid was just
the kind of content for which the first editions of
many of the most popular modern management and
organization textbooks were looking.
Although Maslow himself was not interested in
testing his theory empirically, a number of scholars in
the field of human relations were. This was a time when
the recommendations of two important studies on the
future of management research and education where
still fresh. A report from the Carnegie Foundation ar-
gued that business schools must pursue the develop-
ment of a “systematic body of knowledge of substantial
intellectual content ::: intheformofasetofbusiness
sciences”(Gordon & Howell, 1959: 71–72). Likewise, a
report from The Ford Foundation identified the need
“for research which meets high scientific standards”
(Pierson 1959: xv). Maslow’s thinking provided what
looked like a testable scientific theory in human re-
lations at a time when there were few to be found.
Pioneering organizational behavior scholars such
as Clayton Alderfer (1989: 358) wrote of his “intense
excitement”when he read the first edition of Moti-
vation and Personality,“as if a new light had been
turned on to illuminate human motivation.”Cer-
tainly, this is how Maslow’s ideas were marketed to
management scholars. On the crest of a wave of
popularity, as Maslow was introduced to the fledg-
ling field, he produced a book, Eupsychian Man-
agement (1965). This book with a strange name
and somewhat rambling thoughts was created from
transcribed tape-recorded journal entries Maslow
made in the summer of 1962 while a visiting fellow at
Probably the earliest published rendition of
“Maslow’s Pyramid.”(©Elsevier. Reprinted with
permission from C. D. McDermid, 1960. “How
money motivates men,”Business Horizons, 3(4): 94.)
3In the 1960, 70s, and 80s, Business Horizons was often
a medium for promoting popular new management ideas
and frameworks. For example, it was the first forum for
publicizing both the notion of a “matrix organization”
(Galbraith, 1971) and McKinsey’s Seven-S model (Water-
man, Peters, & Phillips, 1980).
2019 87Bridgman, Cummings, and Ballard
Non-Linear Systems in Del Mar, California. Warren
Bennis, who wrote the Foreword for the book, de-
scribed it as “an outlet for an experiment in truth, an
opportunity to test hypotheses, even seemingly out-
rageous ones”and “a sketch-pad for his unfinished,
and possibly, most creative work”(1965: vii).
Those who put the HON to the test throughout the
1960s and 70s greatly appreciated Maslow’screation
of a new field of research with his theory that behavior
was not just the result of unconscious desires, as the
psychoanalysis conceived, or shaped by rewards and
reinforcement, as the behaviorists had imagined, but
was also driven by the desire to fulfill internal needs.
Subsequently, scholarly articles such as “An Empiri-
cal Test of a New Theory of Human Needs”(Alderfer,
1969); “An Examination of Maslow’s Need Hierarchy
in an Organizational Setting”(Hall & Nougaim, 1968);
and “A Study of the Perceived Need Satisfactions in
Bottom and Middle Management Jobs”(Porter, 1961)
tested HON-based hypotheses.
McGregor’s former student, Chris Argyris, also
played an important role in applying Maslow’s the-
ory about individual motivation to life in 1960s or-
ganizations. His book, Integrating the Individual and
the Organization (1964: 32), promoted an “oversimpli-
fiedmodelofMaslow’sconcept”with lower and higher
level needs. Argyris saw “modern industrial societies”
generally having taken care of lower level needs, where
this was not the case in “undeveloped societies.”Lower
level needs relate to “organizational activities at the
lowest level.”He wrote that rewards related to self-
actualization “tend to exist primarily for the upper
levels of management, for researchers and some engi-
neers, and some sales people”(1964: 32, 37, 255).
Although an increasing number of empirical stud-
ies (e.g., Alderfer, 1969; Lawler & Suttle, 1972;Payne,
1970) failed to confirm aspects of the HON, manage-
ment researchers were reluctant to dispense with it,
concluding that failure to confirm was probably more
a product of deficiencies in the research than with the
theory itself. Moreover, it is probable that senior ex-
ecutives who were providing research access and
other resources for this kind of empirical research at
this time would have found agreeable a theory that
implied thoseat the top of the hierarchy had reached a
more advanced state of human development (Cullen,
1997). In any case, this was a time when pyramids
were a popular way of representing management
challenges. The structure and dynamics of bu-
reaucracy were capturing the attention of social sci-
entists (e.g., Blau, 1956) at a time when management
consulting firms such as McKinsey & Co, Bain and
Company, and the Boston Consulting Group were
competing to woo clients with new management
ideas. Problems of poor organizational performance
were diagnosed as a lack of control, and the pre-
scriptions administered came in the form of detailed
job descriptions, rules, procedures, committees, and a
carefully mapped out chain of command expressed in
pyramid form (O’Shea & Madigan, 1997). Elsewhere,
Chandler (1962: 1) was developing a new subfield,
strategic planning, by defining the object of inquiry
as what happens at the highest level of a pyramidal
hierarchy. The consultants were in the business of
building and selling pyramids. It was not a big leap to
suggest that just as high-performing organizations at
this time could be represented as pyramidal hierar-
chies, so too could their employees.
“The consultants were in the business of building and
By the late-1970s, however, management researchers
were starting to lose faith in the HON. Wahba and
Bridwell’s (1976: 234) meta-analysis of 10 studies in-
vestigated the theory’s empirical validity and con-
cluded it was “almost a nontestable theory”because of
Maslow’s lack of rigor, loose language, and vagueness in
conceptualizing his ideas (see Salancik & Pfeffer, 1977,
for a similar assessment). But by the time these criti-
cisms started to gather momentum, another vehicle for
promoting Maslow’s Pyramid had emerged: the modern
Most of the best-selling management textbooks of
today were first published in the late 1970s and early
1980s (e.g., Baron, 1983; Robbins, 1979; Wheelen &
Hunger, 1983). Although there had been some man-
agement textbooks before (e.g., Davis, 1957), factors
emerged to change the management textbook industry.
In response to the Carnegie Foundation and Ford
Foundation reports of 1959, management scholarship
was becoming more scientific and quantitative. Its in-
sights were not in a form easily digestible by students.
As Hunger and Wheelen (1980) reported on their survey
of management educators: “Most [respondents] took the
stance that schools have gone too far with quantitative
methods [and] modeling [and] felt it was time to return
to the teaching of more practical skills and techniques”
(p. 29). The number of students studying business sub-
jects at universities was growing, and advances in
publishing technology enabled a new kind of textbook
that occupied a middle ground between being practical
and maintaining academic credibility. In the preface of
one of his popular books, Stephen Robbins described
88 MarchAcademy of Management Learning & Education
whatwastofollowasthe“culmination of what I’ve
learned works and doesn’t work in the teaching of the
basic course”(1984: xviii). Among the list of features
he identified as being different from textbooks that
had preceded were “pragmatism”—students wanted
useful knowledge—and “figures and exhibits,”which
were useful aids, he claimed, in the learning process.
In these new textbooks, the subject of management
was divided into discrete chapters: (e.g., motivation,
organizational design, managing change), and in
each subfield different theories and ideas would be
presented, generally chronologically, to show the
progression of that subfield. Each chapter would also
include exercises or case studies where students
could test their knowledge by applying the theories
and frameworks. Diagrams, particularly ones di-
vided into steps like Maslow’s Pyramid, made the
subject look practically applicable and the knowl-
edge easily testable. To this day the pyramid stands
tall as a foundation stone in any textbook chapter on
1990s-Today: The Perpetual Power of the Pyramid
As empirical studies have continued to shed doubt
on the validity of the HON, related critiques about the
presentation of Maslow’s Pyramid have increased
(Fineman & Gabriel, 1994; Watson, 1996; Dye et al.,
2005; Mills et al., 2005). So, why does Maslow’sPyr-
amid and the HON theory that it purportedly repre-
sents continue to prevail and be so prominent in our
teaching? Webelieve it has much to do with the power
of the geometric form that Maslow never promoted,
and whose characteristics he actively argued against.
Although the meaning of shapes has not been stud-
ied in relation to management theories, researchers in
graphics, branding, and traffic-sign design have de-
termined that using geometrical forms to frame, order,
and present ideas can have powerful effects (Macnab,
2008). For nearly 100 years, advocates of Gestalt theory
have explored how viewers group together different
objects into groups or a single coherent whole when the
separate elements are arranged together in a particular
way. Research has concluded that the arrangement of
elements follows principles of similarity, continua-
tion, closure, proximity, figure/ground relations, and
symmetry and order. Elements so arranged feel more
connected, coherent, and complete (Arnheim, 1954).
The arrangement of the HON into a simple graphic
gives it an appearance of coherence and completeness.
Moreover, presenting the HON as a pyramid or equi-
lateral triangle on its base conveys specific character-
istics that may be well suited to management and
corporate audiences. Pyramids and equilateral tri-
angles are the most difficult straight-sided shapes to
break or bend; thus, they represent power and strength
(Newman, Garry, Bernstein, Kantner, & Lindsay,
2012). Also, pyramids convey religious significance,
reflecting a pathway from earth to heaven or describing
powerful trinities, such as body–mind–spirit or
father–son–holy ghost or past–present–future. They
also indicate scientific credibility, universality, and
precision. An upright triangle illustrates an objective
view, and its geometry conveys exactitude.
The triangle’s ability to point in a single direction
explains the Greek symbol delta (4), meaning
change. By suggesting change, action, and conflict,
triangles capture attention and put people on alert.
Traffic signs that indicate hazards tend to be upright
triangles. Conversely, because triangles resting on a
point rather than a base have been proven to illicit
feelings of conflict, tension, doubt, nervousness,
risk, a focusing of the mind, and looking downward,
they are ideal for “Yield”or “Give Way”signs
(Armbruster, Suchert, G ¨
artner, & Strobel, 2014; Larson,
Aronoff, & Stearns, 2007). 4
In many cultures, triangles represent masculinity
(a triangle standing on its base like a pyramid sig-
nifies male, whereas one standing on its tip signifies
female). It is a symbol of energy (a triangle on its base
signifies fire) and reflects inspiration and aspiration.
As stated by Macnab (2008: 201), “the triangle is the
symbol of inspiration through the transcendence of a
mundane base. The divisive line at the bottom of the
triangle returns to its divine origins, the point of in-
finity and wholeness.”This symbolism encouraged
Adidas to develop its traditional three stripes logo
into the form or a pyramid (Wang, 2015).
In the age of teaching with PowerPoint, Maslow’s
Pyramid went on to become a staple in the slide
packs (often developed in tandem with increasingly
glossy and graphic-rich management textbooks). In-
deed, experts claim that the layered pyramid is an
exemplar shape for anybody looking to design an
effective presentation that organizes information
from the greatest to the least (McGuire, 2019). The
pyramid has gained further power as it has extended
beyond management writing and teaching to become
4One writer who investigated the origins of Maslow’s
ideas concluded that Maslow based his triangle on the tipi
of First Nations people the Blackfoot, following a sum-
mer Maslow spent with the tribe in 1938 (Michel, 2014).
However, in Blackfoot tradition, the triangle rests on its
tip, not its base, which would be detrimental to Maslow’s
HON as a reassuring and popular theory for managers.
2019 89Bridgman, Cummings, and Ballard
part of the modern fabric of life and pop-culture.
Searching Maslow’s Pyramid reveals dozens of ver-
sions and reinterpretations of the form: pyramids
that outline five levels of robot needs, vampire and
zombie needs, and Internet needs (with Wifi gener-
ally being seen as a base need without which young
people can no longer function on any other level).
There is even a Maslow Hotel in Johannesburg,
dedicated to the HON, with its levels of accommo-
dation arranged in pyramid form.5
Following World War II, Maslow’s HON captured
the prevailing ideologies of individualism, national-
ism, and capitalism in America and justified a grow-
ing managerialism in bureaucratic (i.e., layered
triangular) formats (Cooke & Mills, 2008; Cooke et al.,
2005; Cullen, 1997; Dye et al., 2005). But Maslow’s
HON 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
packaged in a pyramid with five clear categorical
levels. Although it may be difficult to prove links be-
tween the pyramid shape and the HON’sprominence,
no other management theory has been so closely
linked to a particular geometric symbol (Clark, 2012;
see also Peterson & Park, 2010). Repetition in this form
has not only strengthened misconceptions of Mas-
low’s HON, but also made it (and our misconceptions)
more ubiquitous, more ingrained, and harder to
change (De Bruyckere et al., 2015).
WINNERS AND LOSERS
Our investigations into how Maslow’s Pyramid be-
came not just the most famous symbol in manage-
ment studies, but a meme, raise broader questions
about how management knowledge has developed
through the field’s history, as well as questions about
how we, as management educators, pass on that
knowledge to students. These questions concern the
politics of knowledge, especially the interests that
are served by ideas being presented in particular
ways. Presenting the HON as a pyramid suited al-
most everyone involved: consultants like McDermid
who needed a memorable framework to sell to cli-
ents; the Academy of Management who wanted its
members to be seen as being relevant to practice;
textbook publishers and authors who needed not just
an idea that had practical applications to the “real
world,”but also the academic credibility that a
“founding father”such as Maslow could provide
(and then a progression that could be demonstrated
by showing his ideas to be simplistic and outdated);
and researchers who could propose extensions to the
pyramid to address gaps in Maslow’s thinking.
It also suited Maslow. This distinguishes the pyra-
mid from other examples of misrepresentations
within management studies of famous historical fig-
ures, such as Smith, Weber,and Lewin, who died well
before their ideas were appropriated by others. Mas-
low lived for 10 years after McDermid’spresentation
of the pyramid and did little to correct it, despite
expressing in his writing a dislike for reductionism, or
what he called rubricizing:“a cheap form of cogniz-
ing, i.e., really a form of not-cognizing, a quick, easy
cataloguing whose function is to make unnecessary
the effort required by more careful, idiographic per-
ceiving or thinking”(Maslow, 1962: 126).
Maslow’s personal journals (1979a,b), which he
began writing in 1959 and detail his inner thoughts,
emotions, and conflicts, are revealing. By the time
the HON was beginning to be celebrated byMcGregor,
Davis, McDermid and others (Haire,1956; Pellegrin &
Coates, 1957), aspects of Maslow’s professional life
were unraveling. He felt underappreciated in psy-
chology, whose journals had been taken over by ex-
perimentalstudies, which depressed Maslow for their
lack of creativity and insight. He also had more prag-
matic concerns, suffering periods of ill health and
financial difficulties. Maslow found personal and
professional redemption in his acceptance in the
management community and financial gain through
speaking engagements and consulting. He welcomed
the new field showing an interest in his ideas and
offering the potential for personal benefit. It is not
surprising then that he would let the reinterpretation
and simplification of his ideas by his admirers pass.
However, while some benefitted from the creation
of Maslow’s Pyramid, not everyone did. The biggest
losers, we suggest, have been management students.
We identify three specific negative effects in this
regard: (1) that the pyramid is a poor representation of
Maslow’s HON; (2) that the preoccupation with the
pyramid obscures the context within which the the-
ory was created; and (3) that by focusing exclusively
on the pyramid, we miss the other contributions that
Maslow’s thinking can make to management studies.
The first problem with Maslow’s Pyramid is that it is
plainly wrong, not so much because he did not create
it, but because a pyramid—although a good fit for a
5The Hotel “aspires to create an environment that op-
timally satisfies the fundamental needs of the individual so
that the mind is free to achieve its highest potential, self-
90 MarchAcademy of Management Learning & Education
universal and aspirational theory containing a rigid
hierarchy of mutually exclusive categories—is a poor
representation of Maslow’soriginalthesisonmotiva-
tion. A rectangular shape like the ladder that many
used before the pyramid became de rigueur (e.g.,
Porter, Lawler, & Hackman, 1975; Wren, 1972), would
be a more accurate representation of his 1943 con-
ception. A ladder addresses the “narrowing”elitism of
the pyramid and its implication of a definite end-point
to the progress of human development, rather than
allowing for the possibility of “steps”beyond self-
actualization (Rowan, 1998; Wilber, 2000). The ladder
also attenuates the most common misrepresentation
of the HON: that people occupy only one level at any
particular time. The depiction of the HON as a pyra-
mid, with horizontal lines demarcating the different
levels, makes it difficult to imagine that people can be
simultaneously striving to satisfy a number of different
needs. When one is on a ladder, multiple rungs are
occupied by the feet and hands, and other rungs may be
leaned on as well. The ladder as thus described is far
closer to Maslow’s original thinking.
Moreover, a ladder better denotes movement both
up and down the hierarchy, another overlooked
feature of Maslow’s theory. As prominent manage-
ment historian Daniel Wren (1972: 329) noted in the
first edition of his The Evolution of Management
Thought:“In Maslow’s theory, people moved up the
ladder of needs as each level was satisfied [but] they
could [also] move in a reverse direction if fulfilment
of a lower order need was threatened or removed.”
Indeed, Wren continued to use the ladder to describe
the HON until the most recent, 6th edition (Wren &
Bedeian, 2009). Removing the pyramid from man-
agement textbooks and replacing it with a ladder
would be a step forward.
This leads to our second problem with the pyramid,
which is that it is presented as a simplistic “cookie
cutter,”one-size-fits-all approach to managing peo-
ple, and not at all what Maslow intended. The case of
Maslow’s Pyramid is representative of the way his-
torical figures in management studies and their ideas
are presented, frozen in time and devoid of their his-
torical context (Cooke et al., 2005; Dye et al., 2005;
Hassard, 2012; Jacques, 1996; Genoe McLaren, Mills,
& Weatherbee, 2015). Although the potted histories of
management that often occupy “chapter 2”of in-
troductory textbooks are criticized for their over-
simplification (Jacques, 2006; Jacques & Durepos,
2015), at least Frederick Taylor and his scientific
management are to some extent situated in events of
the day, to give students insight into the reasons for
their emergence and spread. In contrast, Maslow’s
HON almost always appears in chapters on motiva-
tion and with little or no discussion of context.
While today’s textbooks judge the HON harshly
against the criterion of scientific validation, un-
derstanding the context could lead to a more sympa-
thetic, and more informed assessment. Maslow was
an eminent psychologist: President of the American
Psychological Association, the founder of humanistic
psychology, and an intellectual. He was not a man-
agement scholar or consultant, nor did he desire to be.
Maslow was watching the world go to war for the
second time in 30 years, and he believed his field of
psychology could contribute an understanding of its
causes, were it not for its scientific conservatism and
preoccupation with method. Paradigm shifts in
thinking would only result, he believed, from a more
creative, risk-taking approach, for which his HON
stands as an exemplar (Lowry, 1973: 47). At the time,
Maslow’s efforts to break free from the straight-jacket
of empiricism were well-received. Two years before
his classic 1943 article in Psychological Review,
Maslow published a paper in the same journal on the
principle of frustration, which would become a cor-
nerstone in his motivation theory. Klein (1942) de-
scribed it as “a superb example of sound armchair
psychology”(p. 233) and said Maslow had proved
that psychologists need not be “concerned about be-
ing stigmatized as philosophers”(p. 233) and “need
no longer worry about the feelings of inferiority of our
psychological forbears because of the greater pre-
cision and rigor of the natural sciences”(p. 233).
Is a more context-sensitive depiction of Maslow’s
HON in management textbooks realistic? After all,
are textbooks not forced to be reductive to provide
students with a broad understanding of the field’s
foundations? Although this argument has intuitive
appeal, the existence of textbooks that provide a
more sophisticated, context-rich account of the HON
and other aspects of Maslow’s theorizing (e.g., Clegg,
Kornberger, & Pitsis, 2016; Mills et al., 2005) dem-
onstrate that it can be done. But it also raises the
question of whether textbooks are sufficient to de-
liver the basics of management education, even for
introductory courses. Why not also get students to
read original sources, which is common practice
across the social sciences? After all, compared with
academic journals of today, where papers are often
written in a style impenetrable to all but a small
number of “insiders,”the writings of historical fig-
ures such as Taylor, Lewin, and McGregor are ac-
cessible and digestible even by new undergraduates.
In the case of Maslow, this would be revealing.
Students would see that he anticipated criticisms
2019 91Bridgman, Cummings, and Ballard
that textbooks would later make of his theory and
explicitly cautioned against his ideas being inter-
preted in these ways. Maslow did not say that the
HON is unidirectional, that achieving higher levels
makes you a superior being, that once a need is sat-
isfied it no longer affects behavior, or that it applies to
all people in the same way (Maslow, 1943, 1954). It
would be clear to students that Maslow’s theory in
his writings is more sophisticated and nuanced than
the simplistic HON presented in most textbooks.
This connects with our third problem with the
pyramid: Its symbolism and memorability prevent
us from looking beyond it in intellectual terms to
create a new Maslow for management studies. If
students read Maslow in the original, they would
realize that he was writing about human needs, not
organizational needs. He was not writing a guide for
managers in organizations, but about people as in-
dividuals and how societies diminish individual
creativity. His work was about freedom of inquiry
and expression, which were among the necessary
preconditions Maslow stated for the satisfaction of
human needs. Maslow was about individual growth
and fulfillment, knowing yourself, and reaching
In the 1950s, creativity and its barriers became
increasingly topical, partly because of the Soviet
Union’s space program successes (Hoffman, 1988).
This is in part how Maslow made his reputation be-
yond the academy. Following the publication of
Motivation and Personality in 1954, he emerged as
one of the few established psychologists to challenge
the prevailing conformism of the 1950s and speak
out on how large organizations and social conformity
stifled individual self-expression. In a 1958 lecture
he observed that “[a] first rate soup is more creative
than a second rate painting, and that generally,
cooking or parenthood or making a home could be
creative while poetry need not be”(Maslow, in
Covin, 1974: 108). One need not strive to get to the
top of an organization to be fulfilled—in fact such
striving might be detrimental to one’s existence as a
This is not the only way in which Maslow was
opposed to modern management conventions. In
Eupsychian Management, he revealed his frustration
that organization theorists, including Schein and
McGregor, were seeing his theory of human nature as
a means to a financial end—short-term profits—
rather than the end which he saw, a more enlight-
ened citizenry and society (1965: 240). Few
managers or organization theorists, he complained,
“have the courage to think in far terms, in broad-
range terms, in utopian terms, in value terms”(1965:
40). Motivating employees to be more productive at
work was not the end that Maslow desired for
He would later seek to correct this deficiency
himself, with his unfinished conceptualization of
Theory Z in which he postulated that people, once
economically secure, would strive for a creative and
productive work life that could satisfy higher level
needs (Maslow, 1998). This blurred the boundaries
between “work”and “life”in many ways, prefigur-
ing subsequent workplace initiatives where work is
seen as an integral part of life. But Maslow died be-
fore finishing his work on Theory Z (Hoffman, 1999).
Regrettably, the pyramid became Maslow’s major
legacy to management studies.
These three problems and the losses they inflict
are significant and relate not just to Maslow. A re-
ductionist, superficial, and often misleading cover-
age of key ideas in management studies, typical of the
best-selling, most influential, largely U.S. textbooks,
does not serve our students well. Therefore, it would
be worthwhile as management educators to reflect
critically on what we are trying to achieve in our
introductory courses in management, as they pro-
vide lasting first impressions of the field that stu-
dents carry through their careers (Christopher,
Laasch, & Roberts, 2017).
BEYOND THE PYRAMID:
IMPLICATIONS FOR MANAGEMENT
“I would like to believe that various kinds of experi-
ences and decades of academic research would ex-
pand our knowledge base. So it is sometimes a bit of a
shock to see how much we thought we already knew
50 years ago and how little our conclusions have
changed in the field of social/organizational psy-
chology since then.”
Ed Schein (2015: 7–8)
Having shown the pyramid to not be Maslow’s
creation, what should we do? Some writers, reflect-
ing on the criticisms leveled at Maslow but still en-
amored with the pyramid, have argued that we
should update, refurbish or “renovate”it for a new
world (Kenrick et al., 2010; Schaller et al., 2010).
Some consider the HON fatally flawed, but note that
“old theories, especially intuitive ones, die hard”
and retain it to highlight how new theories of moti-
vation build upon the old (Robbins & Judge, 2015:
218). A few have suggested that the HON should be
92 MarchAcademy of Management Learning & Education
excluded from new editions of textbooks (Kremer
& Hammond, 2013). This is not what we are
We argue that the popularity of the pyramid ob-
scures a more significant problem. Reflecting on his
more than 60 years of publishing, Ed Schein raised
doubts about whether his field has progressed as far
as we might wish to believe, suggesting the enormous
growth in research might be obscuring insights we
learned decades ago, rather than providing new
ones. With growth has come fragmentation with
jargon-laden subfields that rarely communicate with
each other and produce research dominated by
“quantitative abstraction”(p. 3). Concurrently there
has been a proliferation of surveys, models, and in-
struments developed by consultants and practi-
tioners that focus on improving organizational
performance, but their work has little connection to
the academic research we produce (Schein, 2015).
If a leader in our field like Schein has openly
questioned our progress, then perhaps we should
listen and engage the issue. We need better
awareness, evaluation, and integration of histori-
cal writings relevant to management. We need an
appreciation of insights from the time before em-
piricism dominated research and the modern
textbook dominated teaching.
Although we have argued that presenting Mas-
low’s HON as a ladder would be a better represen-
tation of his theory, we should not need a ladder,
pyramid, or any other symbol to generate insights
from Maslow’s thinking on the nature of human
needs. Maslow’s currencywas words, not figures and
diagrams, and is a valuable reminder that not all good
ideas come in the form of a memorable symbolor 2 32
matrix. We encourage a “restoration”of Maslow’s
original thinking, rather than the “renovation”of the
pyramid. Restoration would include encouraging
people to read the original source of the HON, Mas-
low’s 1943 article, rather than relying on far-removed
secondary, even tertiary, interpretations that mis-
represent Maslow’s more nuanced insights.
We also advocate introducing students to the
breadth of his thinking beyond the HON. They would
benefit from understanding that his academic writ-
ing spanned nearly 40 years, across the most tu-
multuous period of the 20th century that included
economic depression, war, and social movements
for equality and justice. As Alderfer has noted (1989),
Maslow’s thinking shifted as he sought explanations
for these events, and also for what was happening
in his own life as a scholar, father, and husband.
The simplification of his HON into the pyramid
perpetuates a simplistic view of a complicated man
and misunderstandings of his writings (Cooke &
Mills, 2008; Cooke et al., 2005; Dye et al., 2005; Mills
et al., 2005).
In addition, the story of Maslow’s Pyramid should
cause us to reflect on how the forms used to commu-
nicate ideas and theories convey meanings that may
change the nature of those theories, or promote per-
spectives inconsistent with those theories. For exam-
ple, presenting strategic thinking as coming from those
at the tip of the organizational triangle may lead to
undervaluing the contributions that may come from
other stakeholders. Likewise, presenting a model of
change management in a linear step-by-step diagram
may suggest a process far more simplistic than reality,
leading to disappointing results (Cummings et al.,
2016). Hence, we should consider whether the benefits
of a memorable image in a PowerPoint outweigh the
potential oversimplification or misrepresentation of
what is being taught, and seek to manage this balance
(Kaplan, 2011; Knight, Paroutis, & Heracleous, 2017).
Beyond this, there is value to be gained by giving
students an appreciation of how the subject of man-
agement studies has formed, through interactions
among researchers, educators and consultants,
practitioners, philanthropic foundations, and gov-
ernments. All played a role in the creation and pop-
ularization of Maslow’s Pyramid. Gaining insights
into these processes can stimulate students’critical
thinking. The history of the pyramid and Maslow’s
theory could be a powerful case study, because most
students will have previously encountered “Mas-
low’s Pyramid”and taken it as a given. As a case
study, it would have the greatest value in an in-
troductory course where it could help develop and
further the critical thinking skills of future managers.
In exploring Maslow’s wider contribution, man-
agement educators and students will need to wrestle
with another dilemma: Maslow has been criticized
for elitist, sexist, racist, and biological determinist
views, as well as his stance on the Vietnam War
(Cooke & Mills, 2008; Cullen, 1997; Grant & Mills,
2006; Knights & Willmott, 1974/75; Prichard, 2002).
Many of his ideas were not fully formed (as he ac-
knowledged throughout his career) or even well
thought-through. However, we should be wary of
judging Maslow through the lens of today’s values
(Dye et al., 2005), but we should at the same time
recognize that a number of his ideas about race,
gender, and a biological elite were offensive when he
said them and remain so today, leading many in the
scientific community, such as Carl Rogers, to dis-
tance themselves from him (Hoffman, 1988: 298).
2019 93Bridgman, Cummings, and Ballard
However, to discard Maslow completely would be a
loss, because he really did practice the free and crea-
tive thinking that he believed society needed, and
what Schein (2015) suggested is largely absent in ac-
ademia today. As such, Maslow still offers “arare
opportunity to observe a fertile and imaginative mind
at work unfettered by the conventions of scientific
reporting”(Vroom, 1967: 97). Maslow’s original
question that spurred his motivation theory was not
“how can managers motivate workers to maximize
productivity and profit”(as one might believe when
seeing the pyramid in management textbooks and
used as a consulting tool), but “what do we need for
happiness and fulfillment in life”(Hoffman, 1988:
137). The test of enlightened management, he be-
lieved, was the effect of organizational policies on
people’s behavior outside of work, in the community.
Inspiring the study of management and its relation-
ship to creativity and the pursuitof the common good
would be a muchmoreempowering legacy to Maslow
than a simplistic, 5-step, one-way pyramid.
The creation of Maslow’s Pyramid has implications
that go beyond a concern with his potential contri-
bution to our field. It has implications for how we
understand our field’s historical foundations, and
how those foundations shape our conception of what
management is, what it could be, and how we teach
our students as a result.
Consequently, what we advocate here is a critical-
historical approach to both research and teaching.
Fundamentally, this means moving beyond the idea
that the reason for examining management history is to
get an understanding of what happened in the past, or
to download the “file”that is contained in chapter 2 of
management textbooks (Wren, 2002). It means seeing
history as a narrative that can interpret past events in
many different ways, depending on the perspectives
taken and the values underpinning them.
Many, if not most, of management studies’foun-
dational ideas have been adapted from other disci-
plines, such as social psychology and economics,
with these ideas filtered through our field’s long-
standing commitments to free-market capitalism,
managerialism, organizational hierarchies, and the
primacy of the individual. Acknowledging that his-
torical interpretations are socially constructed and
reflect deep-seated value commitments (Gergen,
1973), opens up the possibility for creating new his-
tories of management from different perspectives. It
also demonstrates that the narrow view presented in
conventional histories of management need not limit
us, but instead, we can create new and informative
histories of our field—based on different events,
times, people and places than have dominated to
This recognition can spur those interested in
revisiting historical foundations and rethinking our
field’s past and future. With regard to research, this
may involve going into the archives, reading the
work of foundational thinkers in their original form,
locating their contribution to our field within the
body of their whole work and within the historical
context, and comparing the presentation of their
ideas in their home discipline alongside how they
are presented in management studies. Or, it may in-
volve looking at the forgotten roles played by those
who currently do not populate management histo-
ries, such as women and non-European ethnic
groups (e.g., Prieto et al., 2017; Cooke & Alcadipani,
2015). These approaches can help us overcome what
has become a very stale orthodoxy that simplifies
the past and limits future perspectives and devel-
opments (Cummings & Bridgman, 2016).
A critical-historical approach may also change
how we teach management. As we have argued
through our study of Maslow here, our textbooks
could do a better job of representing the past. We
need to encourage our students to think of manage-
ment history as something that exists beyond the
“chapter 2”of their introductory textbooks, while we
rewrite these textbooks. But the change should be
deeper than this. Fostering a critical-historical phi-
losophy can help students to think creatively, a skill
that students must develop to fulfill their potential in
their future careers (Cummings, Bridgman, Hassard,
& Rowlinson, 2017). Studying the history of man-
agement today need not, and should not, be about the
memorization of facts. It should foster thinking crit-
ically about how conceptions of our field’s theories,
like Maslow’s Pyramid, have come to be, how the
past could provide us with different foundations if
we adopted alternative perspectives, and conse-
quently, how we can create different conceptions to
guide us into the future.
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Todd Bridgman (PhD, University of Cambridge, todd.
firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor of man-
agement at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zea-
land. His research interests lie at the intersection of
management history, management education, and critical
Stephen Cummings (PhD, University of Warwick, stephen.
email@example.com) is professor of strategy at Victoria
University of Wellington, New Zealand. His current re-
search interests include the history of the formation of
management and of business schools, and alternative ap-
proaches to strategy formulation and communication.
John Ballard (PhD, Purdue University, social/personality
psychology, firstname.lastname@example.org) is emeritus professor
of management at Mount St. Joseph University, Cincinnati,
Ohio. He has over 25 years of consulting and managerial
experience and is author of Decoding