Pandemic Gave Us A Crash-Course in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

maslow hierarchy of needs

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced organisations of all shapes and sizes to reevaluate their way of operating. By this stage, it’s no secret that businesses have had to go back to the drawing board and innovate with new ways of moving forward in line with the stringent health regulations hitting the economy. There is, however, one key ingredient to this organisational ‘soul searching’ that I believe would transform their chances at impacting people’s lives positively, which in turn helps them transform the lives of their employees, as well as their bottom line.

Way back in 1943, Abraham Maslow presented a paper to the Psychological Review publication titled “A Theory of Human Motivation”, where he mapped out the potential curiosities in the human psyche that motivate certain choices, behaviours and buying habits. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has become an academic icon of understanding how and why people do, say and purchase different things while their financial status might be relatively the same. At the base are our physiological needs like food, water and shelter. Safety needs include personal security, employment and health. One step up the pyramid, we move to the love and belonging needs of friendship, intimacy and family. Then, esteem needs like respect, strength, freedom, status and self-esteem take control, with self-actualization atop the pyramid.

Key to understanding the principle is that someone is unable to move further up the pyramid model unless the previous step is taken care of. This makes sense, considering that you can’t make significant strides in terms of improving your self-esteem or self actualization if you don’t have food or shelter.

“In a matter of weeks, we saw little-to-no demand in the top three pillars of Maslow’s hierarchy, and with it, a sudden existential necessity for businesses and marketers to adapt.”

Now let’s skip the psychology class and instead, let me ask you a question: in the immediate aftermath of a global pandemic being declared, when there were an immeasurable amount of uncertainties, misinformation and stress- which businesses performed best? Supermarkets, of course. According to reports, year-on-year supermarket sales in Australia for the month of March jumped by a staggering 40%, while pharmacy and toiletry spending jumped 60%. People, regardless of their uncertainty or anxiety about the pandemic were addressing their most basic physiological needs, and headed to supermarkets. Businesses that were serving the base layer of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs were rewarded with customer dollars. When the panic buying settled down and people’s attention turned away from the food in the pantry to things like improvements to their home office, or to household chores that have been long-forgotten, we saw a rise in the number of electronics being sold, as well as homeware and hardware stores reporting a rise in sales.

In a matter of weeks, we saw little to no demand in the top three pillars of Maslow’s hierarchy, and a sudden, existential necessity for businesses and marketers to adapt their product or service in the wake of the coronavirus to the lower tiers of the model. High level ‘luxuries’ have been temporarily thrown out the window as humanity shifts through a new, unfamiliar paradigm. We’ve seen the World Health Organisation and governments around the world throw out classifications like essential and non-essential businesses, this is, I believe a recognition of Maslow’s work put into practice, with those organisations serving the first two tiers of the model often being receiving the classification as an essential business.

It’s a cruel definition when you consider how it impacts the lives of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of humans out there when an organisation is defined as non-essential, and therefore can’t operate on the same scale. Sadly, business for a huge amount of organisations has taken a steep dive as a result of this. The way I see it, they’re left with two choices. They can either pivot and adapt their operations to serve the most basic of human needs, or consolidate their operating costs until they can capitalise on the resurgence when life goes back to normal in the near future.

It’s been evident that a significant amount – perhaps more than we ever realised – of the pillars of love, belonging, esteem and self-actualization took place in, or were facilitated by places like public parks, beaches, cafes, bars, restaurants, sporting and musical events. Moving forward, as governments decide that it’s time to reopen their countries, there will be a massive reinvigoration of the top tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy, which will once again make currently unprofitable, in some cases inoperable industries lively and lucrative. When the conditions change, and with our hard-working essential employees making it possible to once again rise up the hierarchy, we’ll be ready to reap the emotional and monetary benefits.

It’s not as though self-actualisation is an impossible feat while living and working from home, but because of the fact humans aren’t able to get human contact to the fullest extent right now, according to Maslow’s model, we aren’t able to reach it just yet.

Here’s to hoping that day isn’t too far off… I wish all organisations out there the best, particularly the ones that have found themselves in the unlucky position of being unable to operate.

As always, thanks for your time, and I’ll see you in the next piece.

Kobi Simmat, Director & CEO of the Best Practice Group.

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