What’s stopping you?

   It is quite true that man lives by bread alone — when there is no bread. But what happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled?

Abraham Maslow, Psychologist


We all enter the world of work with a key purpose in mind.

On the surface it is to make the money we need to live our lives, but we each define in our own way what we would like from the homes and careers and experiences we build.

At the heart of our decision is where we are in securing the things that we need to survive, those things that make us safe, that put food in our bellies and that make us feel loved.

Abraham Maslow wrote about his theory in which he set out a Hierarchy of Needs, which is presented in various guises widely these days. When you study business, or in career development programmes it will probably crop up. It is a theory that suggests that our needs drive our behaviours and our choices of action we take every day.

If we do not have shelter,  a roof over our head, every action we take will be focused on finding it.

If we do not have the food we need to survive, water to drink and quench our thirst it is in every waking thought until we find it.

If we feel threatened by those around us, or the surroundings we find ourselves in, we will set aside all other things to seek the safety we need, to give us courage to proceed.

Our behaviour is likely to be strongly influenced by our sense of belonging, if we feel we do belong we are likely to be empowered, if not, our choices might be different as we succumb to negative influences that bias our judgement.

As we climb the hierarchy, having met all our basic needs we look to enhance our self-esteem and gradually seek a life that is akin to who we truly feel we are, ie to our values.

All these factors along the way have an influence on how we act both in our lives and in our work and when they are met we can truly play to our strengths.

For example, a person under threat of redundancy will behave differently to one who feels engaged, respected and secure in their role. The determining factor might be whether the task at hand is likely to help them show their worth or not. Amongst all this we also all have differing personality traits, leading to even wider ranges of behaviours.

So what does this all have to do with sustainability? After all, I am a sustainability strategist so what am I banging on about?

Well, it is actually quite simple. Within my work I have come to know people. I have seen people in circumstances that threaten their security. I have seen them in positions which afford them great responsibility. I have seen people who have nothing and yet deliver great things for the benefit of others. I have also seen people with great wealth who make choices which will only benefit their loved ones. Each has their reasons, and none of them are wrong or right.

In order to deliver a strategy of any kind you must absolutely obtain the support of the people who will contribute their working hours to it. Understanding what motivates a person to act is useful in designing frameworks that enable you to move forward positively and, hopefully, together.

Now, please take care to understand that models, of course, do not make people. They are simply a tool to help us to break down the external and internal factors that influence. Use the thinking wisely, however. Consider it in the sense of aiming to understand, rather than using it to make a sweeping judgement of your team. Every individual is a complex blend of knowledge, personality, influence and skill and as these flex and change so does the way they make decisions. In other words any framework you design needs to take this into account and build in a degree of flexibility giving the individuals space to adapt on their terms.

We are kicking of a series of blog post threads, covering a range of topics about people and sustainability. This series will work through the levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and we will look at differing perspectives to consider in designing your Sustainability Strategy. Look out for our series on MBTI, Sustainable Development, the Sustainable Development Goals, the Kubler-Ross Change Curve and more, all coming soon!


Sandra Norval is an award winning Sustainability Strategist who believes that frameworks to support people in delivering change are critical to the success of any strategy. Find out more on our main website and join our mailing list to keep up with all of the Maslow’s Hierarchy series and more.




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