No matter how you seek to inspire through communication—with words, your appearance, or even with art or music—you need to address what people really need. People will respond most powerfully to what they value right now on the deepest level. This was brilliantly revealed by psychologist Abraham Maslow in his “Hierarchy of Needs,” which he described in his 1943 article in Psychological Review.
You’ve probably seen it, but here’s a refresher. It’s a pyramid graphic with five levels. From bottom to top, they are:
1. The first level, the foundation, consists of our basic needs for human survival, which Maslow called physiological needs. They are air, water, food, shelter, and the ability to reproduce. Without them, we die.
2. The second level is safety, which we value after we’ve met our basic survival needs. Safety includes personal security, financial security, health and well-being, and safety needs against accidents and illness and their adverse impacts. Increased safety means a longer life.
3. Moving higher on the pyramid, level three is social belonging. Humans need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance among their social groups, both large and small. Large social groups may include national identity, religious groups, or professional organizations. Small social connections include family members, intimate partners, mentors, colleagues, and confidants.
4. Level four is esteem, which includes both self-esteem and respect from others. It’s our fundamental human desire to be accepted and valued by others. People often engage in a profession or activity to gain recognition, which gives the person a sense of contribution or value. Low self-esteem or an inferiority complex may result from imbalances during this level in the hierarchy.
5. The highest need we have is self-actualization. To paraphrase Maslow, “What a person can be, they must be.” This quotation refers to a person having a vision of their full potential and the realization of that potential. Maslow describes this level as the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be. It’s what we call your personal mission.
What does this have to do with innovation leadership?
Innovation Happens at Every Level of Human Experience
Great innovators know that a new idea can be valuable at any level of Maslow’s pyramid. In our work with our valued clients, we see innovations that affect peoples’ lives in a wide range of ways that correspond to Maslow’s hierarchy.
1. Physiological: A new invention that purifies water in a remote village helps with basic human survival. A new vaccine helps to save lives.
2. Safety: An innovative way to combat cyber crime helps keeps us safe. A new invention for diagnosing eye disease helps keep us healthy.
3. Social belonging: Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and other innovative social media platforms help keep us connected.
4. Esteem: Owning the latest version of the iPhone may have little practical advantage over the previous one, but we feel better owning it. An innovative online learning program helps us learn more about our world.
5. Self-actualization: Advances in rocket science allow us to travel into space, to the Moon, and someday beyond.
Innovation can happen any time, any place, and in any form!