Tackling corruption through Maslow, morality and the power of inclusivity | by Nikolai Viedge

Nikolai Viedge Dec 2017In 1943, Abraham Maslow published “A Theory on Human Motivation”, which contained his now famous “hierarchy of needs”, which is also often called the “pyramid of needs”.

Maslow argued that we can break down human needs into five distinct, ascending areas of needs. Basic physical needs such as breathing, access to water, sleeping, access to food and so on are at the bottom, while self-actualisation needs, which include, among others, the need to be moral are at the top. Further, Maslow argued that lower needs must be more-or-less met, before one can consider fulfilling higher-order needs. So, for example, if you don’t have access to food and water, your ability to be moral will be compromised.

As a theory of motivation, it’s fairly straightforward and relatively intuitive: if you don’t have a more-basic set of needs met, it’s harder (though not impossible, more on this later) to be motivated to aspire to higher-order needs. In addition, Maslow’s theory has several ethical implications that are useful to explore as they relate to procurement.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has five levels in ascending order of human importance. “These levels aren’t always fulfilled in order, nor are they strictly separate,” says writer Jayinee Basu. “Maslow states that if lower-order needs are not met while fulfilling higher-order needs, it introduces instability in the system. People who are starving can still love fiercely, but cannot do so for long”.

At the bottom level of the pyramid, our most primary needs are physiological: The need to breath, eat, drink (fluids that hydrate us), sleep and have sex, are, according to Maslow, the most basic of human needs. Above that are our needs for physical and financial safety as well as our need for health, the need for our families to be safe and the need to feel secure where we live.

Once these two sets of needs have been met, we have a greater capacity to focus on love and belonging. Here are our needs are for friendship, family, sexual intimacy and so on. Above these are our need for esteem, which are multiple: self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect for others, and respect by others are all part of our esteem need.

Finally, at the top of Maslow’s hierarchical list of needs are our “self-actualisation” needs, which include, creativity, problem-solving and, importantly, morality: the need or desire to behave ethically. Domino Hand Corruption Stop 665547                                                                                                          
Maslow, morality and procurement
There are obvious ethical implications to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: a starving person, for example, is less likely to be concerned about the morality of stealing food and far more concerned with, and motivated by, meeting his/her need to eat.

If someone feels that their basic needs are under threat – perhaps they don’t earn enough, or are over-indebted so their pay cheque doesn’t cover their commitments – they are more vulnerable to corruption because of the destabilisation described above.

Social pressures
While, hopefully, it is unlikely that your needs on the bottom two rungs are ever threatened in your job, the more social nature of the needs in the middle two rungs (the need to feel respected and accepted by your community) can be used against you, unless your company takes steps to mitigate these potential areas for manipulation.

Procurement, by its nature, where suppliers vie for favoured status, is a potentially fertile ground to manipulate Maslow’s hierarchy for malicious gain.

Peer pressure, a culture of silence, cronyism, nepotism and others all rely on our need to feel included and respected. If the culture of a workplace isn’t ethical, then when you resist peer pressure, or don’t buy into an organisation’s culture of silence, you risk ostracization from your (work) community.

For creatures as social as humans, this is a serious threat. As Kipling D. Williams, a Purdue University professor of psychological sciences, puts it, “[b]eing excluded by high school friends, office colleagues, or even spouses or family members can be excruciating”.

In terms of Maslow, to be excluded is to threaten the fundamental human need to feel included and respected by our communities. When the price to pay for behaving ethically is exclusion, the temptation to behave unethically is huge.

Consider terms such as ‘rat’ or ‘whistle-blower’. These terms have negative connotations, even though they denote behaving ethically. Why is that? And how are we making our organisations safe and supportive for whistle-blowers? If we aren’t then is our organisation really prioritising ethics?

The power of company culture
Procurement-ethics guides and courses demand a holistic buy-in to ethics from a company. In other words, from the top down and the bottom up there is a culture of ethical behaviour. There can be no double standards and ethical behaviour must be modelled.

Put incredibly simply, what that means is that to feel part of an organisation – to meet the needs of feeling included and respected in your place of work – means behaving ethically. Culture incentivises ethical behaviour through inclusion.

These organisations understand the pull of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the power of ostracisation, and understand that in order to behave ethically one must have their base needs met, and feel that in behaving ethically, you will be respected for doing so.

Nikolai Viedge is an academic and writer for Bespoke's Bulletin - www.bespoke.co.za 

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Posted on July 18, 2019

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