Ideological Currency – A New Level at Maslow Pyramid?

Amur Leopard Cubs - © Maaja Kitsing at Tallinn Zoo

Amur Leopard Cubs - © Maaja Kitsing at Tallinn Zoo

During past couple of days the favourite pastime of our little daughter has been looking at newborn leopard cubs at Tallinn Zoo live webcam. Her enthusiasm about these cute animals reminded me of couple of papers that management professors Jeffery A Thompson and J. Stuart Bunderson have published about the motivation of zookeepers. Their work strikes as an interesting reminder to all managers about what is really important at work.

Abraham Maslow told us already nearly 70 years ago that we first satisfy needs of physiology, safety, belonging and esteem before  thinking about self-actualization. We might not agree with the model having seen artists or scientists who are pleased to actualize themselves leaving their social or physiological needs completely neglected. Still, Maslow pyramid provides a charmingly simple behavioral theory that makes an useful discussion starter for the MBAs. Its basic principles have been put into good use as a cornerstone to many motivation systems.

Although Maslow model appears comprehensive – it leaves one corporate practice clearly uncovered. Namely – formulation of vision statements. You might have heard the leaders talking on how their corporate vision increases enthusiasm or commitment of their employees. One might agree that a clear vision might contribute to self-actualization possibilities, but in practice there appears to be a discrepancy. Look at some of the vision statements of the global firms. Core essence of the most of them is simply alfa-male driven “Becoming global leaders in this-or-that”.

Having not stumbled across any of the in-depth studies on this subject, I dare to doubt if any of the employees really care if their multi-million corporation would become multi-billion or quite the opposite. Is the connection between vision statements and motivation a complete nonsense? But then again – perhaps I should not be so ironic. It could be that the connection still exists, but it is down to the actual contents of the vision.

I had a chat with a friend who recently resigned from his well-paid corporate position and restarted in a non-profit organization. None of the Maslow pyramid elements drove him to his decision. The key driver behind his choice was the noble vision of his new organization. Not surprisingly, we have also heard about principled programmers who spend vast amounts of their time on working on open source software because of their shared (utopian) vision that software should be free.

Returing to zoo – Thompson and Bunderson spent lots of time studying zookeepers, their personal calling and nobility of cause as key motivating factors for their work. Zookeepers, too, tend to work at minimum wage. Apart from communicating with their furry companions, the work tends to be solitary. No patting on their back from their bosses. No smiles from customers. And lets even forget about career progress or self-fulfilment opportunities.

“People will work hard for money; they will work harder for others. But hardest of all work those who are dedicated to a cause.” – Harry Emerson Fosdick

Thompson and Bunderson have written about “psychological contract” – a tacit agreement between employer and employee, which shapes the behaviour of both parties. Traditionally the currency of psychological contract has been either monetary (paycheck) or emotional (pat on the back). Thompson and Bunderson suggest that based on the zookeepers’ example – the strongest currency of all is the ideology of the organization. If the organization is out for a good cause what the employees really believe in then the managers have the opportunity to win the hearts and minds of their employees more easily leaving aside the other currencies or levels of Maslow pyramid. Should we add this as an additional component to existing 5 levels of Maslow pyramid?

Indeed. People at Skype have told that some employees have agreed to join their team with modest salary requests – just to help people phone each other for free. You might also want to reflect upon your company vision: “What is your noble cause that would help your employees to find their true calling in your organization and worry less about the other Maslow levels?”

PS. Thompson and Bunderson have added a kind disclaimer to their 1993 paper – should your company breach the noble vision then the most committed employees will react fiercely. So use this advice with caution and only if you really mean it! 🙂


Bunderson & Thompson (2003) Violations of Principle: Ideological Currency in the Psychological Contract. Academy of Management Review. Vol. 28, No. 4, 571–586.

Bunderson & Thompson (2009) The Call of the Wild: Zookeepers, Callings, and the Double-edged Sword of Deeply Meaningful Work. Administrative Science Quarterly. Vol. 54, 32–57.

Maslow, A. (1943) A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review 50(4), 370-96.