How Well Are You Fulfilling Your Employees’ Hierarchy of Needs?

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Sep 29, 2017

Remember back to that time you took psychology 101 in college, and one of the first things you probably learned was Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It might have looked a little something like this.

Maslow’s hierarchy is not without controversy, but it does provide us with a simple framework to think about human motivation. The idea is that we are all motivated to achieve, but some needs simply take priority over others – we can’t move up the pyramid until we have our basic needs met. So, when we’re starving (physiological need), we’re not necessarily worried about our physical danger (safety need). If we’re in harm’s way (safety need), we’re not worried about intimate relationships (belongingness and love need). And so on and so forth.

Everyone has a desire to get to the top, but failures at the lower levels can disrupt that journey and send them back down to different levels of the hierarchy.

Clear enough? Ok. Now, let’s take this idea and apply it to the workplace when we’re thinking about the topic of employe engagement. I’ve previously defined employee engagement as the following:

Employee engagement is when your team comes in primed to give it their all, no matter what their role is. They are intrinsically motivated to do their best work.

But how do you get there? My take on Maslow is a guide to motivating your employees on a very human level:

The idea of the employee hierarchy of needs is the same as Maslow – you have to meet the lower level needs before you can expect them to work their way up the pyramid. If you meet all their needs, that’s when we get to employee engagement. If you don’t, you won’t achieve it. Let’s walk through each level.


When we come into work every day, where are we doing our job? Do we have a desk? A workspace? The technology that’s required? This might seem basic, but consider the following:

I once had a job where I was given a broken desk to work at, and my boss didn’t see this as a problem. In another, the IT department refused to purchase the software I needed and I ended up bringing in my personal laptop to work as a work around.

  • How many approvals does your staff need to go through to buy a basic piece of office furniture, even if they have their own budget for it?
  • I’ve worked with clients who are put in workspaces that have lighting that causes them severe headaches.

Because workspace needs seem like something you can check off the list without really thinking about it, we can overlook the impact of less-than-flawless execution. If you’re going to invest in hiring people, you have an obligation to set them up in a way that allows them to achieve.

Will any of the people in the above examples feel like a valued member of the team? Probably not, because their basic needs haven’t been met. They are going to come into work every day and do the bare minimum to get by. They’ll probably be great order-takers, but won’t likely realize their true potential.

Security and stability

The next level has to do with feeling safe in our jobs, and there are two aspects of this:

  1. Security: Job security and a work environment free of threats of physical or emotional harm.
  2. Stability: Organizational and team stability

Let’s start with security

If someone feels as though they might be fired at any moment, they are not going to come in and do their best work, plain and simple.

People worry about being fired a lot more than you might think. In my coaching conversations with clients, I hear about it all the time (even if their boss thinks they are a rock star performer). Most of the time, this can be traced back to a “no news is good news” mentality. In other words, the boss thinks that if they don’t tell you something is bad, then you should assume it’s good without them explicitly saying it.

For all the talk of accepting and embracing critical feedback, we’re usually much more uncomfortable giving positive feedback than we are critical feedback. Seem counterintuitive? Perhaps. But for the purpose of this lesson it means that you have to push through that discomfort and give the positive feedback overtly to give your team the security they need to perform.

But security isn’t just something that comes from positive reinforcement and it’s this piece that organizations have an even tougher time grappling with – an environment free of threats of physical or emotional harm. Most organizations provide an environment that is free of physical danger, but the emotional piece still leaves a lot to be desired.

About one-third of American workers report being a target of workplace bullying and even when they do report it (which only happens about 40% of the time), the organization will not do anything to help them. What’s more, workplace bullying is a self-perpetuating problem – the more it is overlooked by the organization, the more it will occur.

All this is to say that emotional threats are a very real thing in most organizations, and it’s also not something that most leaders want to admit to. If they can’t admit to it, they can’t solve it.

Stability is important too

If you’ve taken care of the security problems, there’s still a matter of stability. Does your organization experience a lot of turnover? What about reorganizations? Do you constantly change your mission and goals that makes it hard for employees to keep up? When the organization seems out of control to your team members, that makes them feel out of control of their day-to-day and of their contribution to the big picture.

That’s not to say things should never change, but the way that change is managed and experienced by your team members is key. Why would someone take initiative to do something innovative in their area when it feels like it would just be thrown out the following week? That’s an investment that doesn’t make sense.

Team camaraderie

Workspace needs and security and stability needs are basic. Cover those and you’ll get diligent workers that show competence in what they do. But that’s a pretty mediocre aspiration. Engagement requires more, and moving up the pyramid is the only way to get there.

The next piece of the puzzle is team camaraderie. Human beings are inherently tribal creatures – we want to belong to the group and have relationships of all different types with others. Since we spend more time at work than almost any other place, the relationships we have there are critical. Taking the attitude of “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to do work” is counterproductive to your larger goal. Trust, support, productive conflict, psychological safety – these are all things that must be fostered on the team to get to the best collective end result.

Some might question why this comes before individual achievement. Can an individual achieve on their own? Yes. Would that singular achievement set the team up for greater success? Maybe. However, getting our best result inherently requires collaboration with others, especially as you move up the food chain.

Take Olympic sports, for instance. In many cases, those athletes compete as individuals. But it’s the connection to the team, the accountability to each other and the support from one another that drives the greatest individual performance. Rarely does an athlete come out on top that has spent their time locked away in a gym training by themselves for years, and the same is true of work.

Individual achievement

One of the things I have the toughest time doing is getting employees to express unapologetic pride in their work. But if you want them to reach the engagement level, where they’re working in flow, taking initiative, and pursuing their responsibilities with passion, then you must cultivate an environment that enables team members to feel proud of their individual contributions. Otherwise, you’ll just have an environment full of sullen teenagers.

Need one more reason for team camaraderie to come before individual achievement? What happens when team members on dysfunctional teams try to do that? It’s instantly perceived in the most negative possible way as a challenge to the accomplishments of others. But if you have that base of trust, people should be genuinely happy for the accomplishments of others and should feel great about handing out positive feedback and high fives.

One final point on individual achievement – it’s not just about achievement for achievement’s sake. It’s about a sense of achievement that is a contribution to the greater whole. You want your team to have a sense that their work matters to other people. It’s all about impact.

Engagement and innovation

Do all these things well and you’ll find your people truly engaged, empowered with a sense of ownership. This is when you get to the really good stuff – passion, imagination, an intrinsic drive that lets them look past all the little things that might be going wrong (because there will always be those things) and focus instead on the work right in front of them.

Remember though, this isn’t the end of your journey. People can always get knocked down the pyramid and have to work through challenges and obstacles to make it back to the top. But baring major catastrophe, getting to the top the second (or third, forth, or fifth) time around will be a much easier journey.

Sound like a lot? It is. And that’s why true employee engagement is so rare. Employee engagement is about the day-to-day experience more than anything else – master that and the benefits of achieving it will be evident in your bottom line.

This was originally published on Zen Workplace.