Maslow, Leadership and KM

Maslow, Leadership, and KM

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (J. Finkelstein CC BY-SA 3.0)


Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory of human motivation. In a nutshell it says “first things first”. Humans want their physiological needs (food, water, shelter) met before safety needs (physical safety, financial safety). Once those needs are met humans will seek out love, belonging, esteem, and finally “Self Actualization”.

Leaders should understand Maslow, in fact his hierarchy of needs is discussed in many leadership courses, it helps leaders to set more realistic expectations, and guides them as they tend to their people’s needs.

But what does this have to do with knowledge management?

Two core components of knowledge management are knowledge sharing and knowledge creation (innovation). For an organization to effectively share knowledge, the culture of that organization must encourage individuals to want to share. If your boss uses threats of losing your job, or docking your pay, how motivated will you be to share? If hoarding information and only revealing it in a meeting in front of the boss is rewarded, how does that affect relationships between co-workers? If employees are encouraged to compete, rather than collaborate, how will that impact knowledge sharing and the resulting knowledge creation that drives innovation?

When choosing a knowledge management strategy a KM must consider the culture of the organization. Selecting a KM strategy that assumes people will want to share, and will get fulfillment from solving a problem, might not work in an organization that pits people against each other at bonus time.

For knowledge management to work it has to enjoy leadership buy-in. More than walking the walk and using all the new and shiny tools your KM provides, a leader must be sure the corporate culture supports sharing. Take care of the physiological and safety needs of your people. Facilitate, then get out of the way as they form bonds and “cliques”. Be sure rewards do not promote unhealthy completion (that one will be a challenge) and give people the opportunity to self-actualize. Hint: If they are doing it to make you happy, they are not there yet.

Editor’s note: Originally published in his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”, Abraham Maslow’s theory, like most psychology theories, has been challenged; however it continues to be the standard upon which other theories are compared. Perhaps it survives these challenges because it is laid out so simply, it is easy to diagram, and easy for the layman (i.e. your author) to understand. As a generalization it’s a valid theory, but don’t try and force it upon your organization. Put Maslow in your tool bag and use it to help guide your decisions.

For more on Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, check out the Wikipedia page and read Maslow’s paper on York University’s Classics in the History of Psychology site.

Related links:’s_hierarchy_of_needs

About John Donahue

I'm a practicing Knowledge Manager, providing KM consulting for organizations from small businesses to large governmental agencies. I've organized and participated in KM and IKM Working Groups at a US Embassy overseas, with the US DoD, and with deployed NATO headquarter staffs. I served 20-years as an Air Force officer and aviator, during which time I was an award-winning instructor at the US Air Force Academy and logged nearly 100 combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan. Now a seasoned Knowledge Manager and certified Project Management Professional I'm applying my organizational, leadership, teaching and technical skill to the knowledge management profession.

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