If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Abraham Maslow
The phrasing of this quote is the most popular variation of the version that Maslow actually wrote in 1966. Two years earlier, Abraham Kaplan wrote about what he called The law of the instrument: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” Today we refer to this concept most often as Maslow’s hammer.
Research shows that the concept likely goes back way before Kaplan or Maslow. Yet, Maslow was so well-known for creating “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” that he is probably most responsible for the introduction of this concept into the field of psychology and beyond.
When professionals or others are oriented toward a particular solution to a problem, they are often using Maslow’s hammer. For example, when I had a torn cartilage (meniscus) in my knee, my physical therapist (PT) recommended a range of non-surgical treatment options. But he warned me that if I went to an orthopedic surgeon, I would most likely hear that I needed surgery. I listened to my PT, followed his instructions, and the injury healed without surgery! Yet, meniscus surgery is extremely common in the U.S.!
As coaches who specialize in ADHD, my business partner and I ask our new ADHD coaching clients to provide formal written assessments of their ADHD diagnosis. When we review the assessments, we often find that there are co-existing conditions (e.g., learning disabilities or anxiety) that may be as important or more important to factor into our coaching approach than simply implementing “ADHD coaching tools” alone.
How To Avoid the Maslow’s Hammer Pitfall
- Notice when others fall into a trap. Become more aware of whether your doctor, coach, mechanic, etc., tends to have a very narrow range of “solutions” for things that need attention.
- Examine your own track record. How often have you used one of your favorite tools (your “hammer”) only to discover that it either did not fix the problem or actually made things worse?
- Expand your toolkit. Search for Best Practices in your field. Attend webinars and keep up with technology.
- Consult with others. Find people who are skilled with different tools than you have. Ask them if you might be focusing on the wrong symptoms and “solutions.” Offer to return the favor.
Questions for Reflection
- From your own experience in seeking professional help, can you remember a situation in which you sensed that someone had “a solution in search of a problem?”
- Think of at least one or two times when you used a “favorite tool” that failed to fix a problem you were trying to address.
- What is the most important step you could take to improve your track record for finding “the right tool” to address future problems or issues?
- Do you think you are known to be a person with a wide array of tools to address problems and opportunities?