Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in the Workplace

Looking at the statistics related to workplace contentment makes for pretty grim reading. Employee engagement is down to about 30%. Studies have shown that, on a scale of 1 to 5, 60% of workers feel at a stress level of 3 and above on any given work day.  Work life balance is not trending in a favorable direction either. 

A negative outcome in these factors is intertwined with plummeting productivity rates. It really makes you wonder, are we using the right tools and performance management techniques? Do we really understand the employee experience?

If we’re going to turn these statistics around and get the most out of our employees, we have to make a change. We have to look at human psychology and what is important to them. And nobody knew how to do that better than the ‘Father of Human Psychology’, Abraham Maslow

What is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

Maslow invented the hierarchy of needs based on the idea that everyone is motivated by the pursuit of realizing their full potential. The only problem is that they can’t get there without satisfying certain basic needs. 

To illustrate the path to self-actualization (reaching and transcending personal fulfillment), he constructed a pyramid with 5 separate needs. The process began with basic existence requirements before progressing to safety, belongingness, esteem and finally reaching the heights of self-actualization.

How do we satisfy each employees’ needs?

Employers are constantly in search of improving results, growth and development. However, pursuing these metrics only overlooks the vehicle that gets you there. Your employees. 

Only by correctly satisfying basic motivational needs can you really unleash your team’s full potential. 

Start by scoring your performance as an employer against the following rungs of the pyramid. 

3) Physiological Needs

The very first step in Maslow’s pyramid is about basic survival. From a human standpoint, it’s the need for air, water, food and warmth. These are the minimum requirements you need to stay alive. 

Applying this to your employees, you need to look at the basic conditions afforded to your workforce. 

  • Do you pay steady salaries that allow for an acceptable standard of living (very dependent on your city)? 
  • Do employees get/take breaks? 
  • Does the team have access to water, toilets and food?

Most employers assume that they easily satisfy physiological needs because they are the basic level. However, that can be an oversight. 

If you run a busy medical centre or fast food restaurant, are the staff getting the breaks when they need them? Are they being paid a livable wage? 

Does your work environment or your processes carry risks or neglect the most basic physiological requirements? 

2) Safety and Security

HR and businesses generally also like to think that employee handbooks, health and safety practices and SOPS cover them for safety. But when was the last time they were updated? When was the last time you communicated them to your whole team? Are they routinely enforced? Are the processes outlined actually fair? And, what do they say about workplace harassment? 

Harassment is rife across many workplaces. Assess your environment and the relationships between staff and management. It’s worth understanding that 62% of women experience harassment in their jobs

Quite often things like scope creep can filter into a toxic work environment. Employees who don’t see eye to eye with a manager get landed with less favorable projects and tasks. This can be eliminated by understanding the relationships but also providing well-defined job descriptions

Safety and security on the pyramid go beyond harassment and physical safety. Items like job security, benefits, paid leave, a pension and other fringe benefits contribute to the personal security experienced by employees. 

3) Social and Belonging Needs

Attending to the physiological and safety needs construct a strong foundation but only take you as far as employee satisfaction. If you want to fully engage employees and reach the highest levels of productivity, the top 3 levels demand attention. 

For Netflix, this was a crucial part of their culture deck. They want to create belonging and shared identity but they aren’t aiming to be a family. They find that concept to be empty. “We’re a team, not a family”. Netflix aims to establish high performance through connectedness and respect. 

While social and belonging needs don’t seem like a priority, it makes a huge impact. It is often the difference between showing up for a paycheck and working like you are part of something important. 

4) Esteem 

For most companies, esteem can be instilled by providing challenging projects and creating more teams. When teams are collectively challenged, the benefits of success run deep because we all want to feel part of something bigger. 

Esteem needs speak to our self worth and help us to maintain a positive self-image. It is the reaffirmation that we are respected, valued and that we are where we think we should be. The biggest tool for esteem. Simple and easy. 

Acknowledging performance is a vital part of the puzzle. Unfortunately, most managers still stick with annual appraisal. This is a dinosaur in engagement. Employees just don’t benefit from once-a-year reviews. 

Celebrate your team regularly, especially as they achieve success. Employees feel unappreciated and resentful when they are not acknowledged as part of success. It is not much different to someone taking the credit for the work you did. 

If you don’t care who was responsible for achieving the success, why would they care about delivering it?

5) Self-Actualization

Self-actualization inside and outside the workplace tends to overlap. It is untethered fulfillment and can’t typically be achieved without being content in most areas of life. 

When it comes to self-actualization, you are really talking about the ability to achieve goals and dreams. For HR or a manager to contribute, you must discover what those are. 

Sit down with your employees. Ask them what their career hopes are. Set stretch goals that drag the best out of them. Set them up for success with outside coaching or training courses. 

Self-actualization serves you both. The business wins because you get an employee driven to succeed in your important challenges. 

For the employee, they get to explore, realize and reset their potential. They are on the very outer limits of motivation where they are pursuing the challenges they imagined throughout their careers. 

Why does Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Work?

Maslow’s hierarchy does have its naysayers and shortcomings. Many suggest that the realization of big career dreams is not the best driver of success but small wins work best. It may be true but small wins are not what the employee looks for. 

The Hierarchy of Needs works for a plethora of reasons. 

Firstly, it appreciates the changing nature of humans and their needs. Threats don’t just go away and permanently stay away. They can present themselves at different times in novel ways. But, once they are dealt with, we move on quickly because we have a ‘What’s next?’ mentality. 

Secondly, it acknowledges the limited motivational capacity of extrinsic rewards. Money, perks, benefits etc only go so far. As soon as we feel we are in a comfortable lifestyle, we strive for intellectual stimulation and further challenge. 

Finally, it provides a roadmap to sustainable high performance. You are probably spending more money than you need to if you don’t understand the factors affecting motivation. Money only goes so far. Inner drive and self-satisfaction goes further. 

Employees want the opportunity to test themselves and achieve their best. They want to be part of bigger purpose goals in ways that value and challenge them. 

They want something that money can’t buy. 

Final Thoughts

Abraham Maslow spent a lifetime studying the positive factors of human psychology and as a result, evolved the conversation around mental health. He disagreed vehemently with the likes of Freud and Skinner who focused on negative pathological aspects because he believed people were capable of more. 

Maslow’s pyramid may have been developed nearly 70 years ago but it resonates because it unshackles human potential. For companies to truly leverage its teachings, they need to take care of the basics and provide the platform and opportunity to inspire their employees. 

This may all sound quite utopian but Maslow was a firm believer in the capabilities of humans. He disrupted research on human limitations and provided us with a lens to understand the motivation of our potential. Without his hierarchy, who knows how long it would have taken for us to really achieve exceptional performance.