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Leadership

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: An In-Depth Guide for Leaders and Managers

Matthew Channell - Last Update: 27 Apr 2021

Contents

What is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs?

The 5 Levels Pyramid, from Basic to Ultimate Needs

Why should managers care about human needs?

Growth needs versus deficiency needs

Hierarchy caveats

Imagine a workplace where everyone did what you needed them to do, without the need for micro-management and prodding. Even better, picture employees doing these things because they genuinely want to, not because they have to!

Motivation is arguably the most critical lever managers and leaders have for creating high performance. By motivating your employees and fulfilling their needs, you will likely see them give you maximum contribution, often without you needing to cajole them continually.

Good leaders and managers understand that to create high performing individuals and teams they must attune to the human motivations of their people.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a go-to model that explains the psychology of human motivation. It will help you spend less time guessing what makes your people tick so that you can spend more time doing the things that motivate them.

What is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs?

Back in 1943, in his paper "A Theory of Human Motivation", a humanist psychologist named Abraham Maslow proposed a theory that he called the Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow believed that humans all have needs that must be satisfied, from the most basic needs to the most complex.

According to Maslow, people will be consumed by their basic needs before moving on to other, more advanced needs. To understand this principle, imagine that you haven't eaten for three days; your dissatisfaction with this situation will likely provide you with great motivation to find food. At that moment, it is improbable that you'll be motivated to do an excellent job at work and get recognition for doing so.

Maslow supported this idea by saying that "A person who is lacking food, safety, love, and esteem would most probably hunger for food more strongly than for anything else".

In short, not meeting a physiological need will often monopolise a person's thoughts, dwarfing any idea of fulfilling higher-level needs like esteem and recognition.

Once the core needs at a given level are satisfied, the next level in the hierarchy will emerge more strongly and become a driver of behaviours and thoughts. Maslow's theory highlighted the idea that a fulfilled need is no longer an active motivator; therefore, once a person has satisfied the requirement, they will seek to meet a higher need.

For example, many people will be motivated by an increase in their salary, until they get that salary! Once the person has met that money need, it is less likely to be a constant motivator. In fact, you may now be motivated toward a higher salary or a different goal altogether.

The 5 Levels Pyramid, from Basic to Ultimate Needs

Maslow presented us with the five human basic needs:

  1. Physiological needs

  2. Safety needs

  3. Social needs

  4. Esteem needs

  5. Self-actualisation needs

Maslow's model presents the hierarchy of needs in a pyramid, here's our adapted version:

maslows hierarchy of needs pyramid

The basic needs (Level 1-2)

Level 1: Physiological needs

Our basic physiological needs (aka physiological drives) ensure our survival. Some examples of physiological needs include:

  • Food

  • Water

  • Shelter

  • Warmth

  • Sleep and rest

  • Homeostasis (this is the body's natural mechanism for maintaining a stable, constant environment)

These physiological needs are the most basic in Maslow's hierarchy and provide people with a sense of security that they'll survive another day. Once met, we move on to more advanced needs.

What can managers do to motivate employees with physiological needs?

Managers can:

  • Provide adequate food and water for employees or make sure that they know what they need to bring to work. The more you can provide, the better.

  • Ensure that the workplace is well heated or cooled to maintain the correct temperature and comfort levels

  • If your business requires work outdoors, be sure to give your staff clothing to suit all weather conditions.

  • Keep company cafeterias, kitchens, and vending machines stocked with a variety of healthy foods.

  • Adequately maintain workspaces, especially where workers spend any length of time, such as desks and production lines. Ensure good air quality, complete DSE assessments and act to improve these spaces.

Level 2: Safety needs

Once a person's physiological needs are satisfied, the safety needs at level two of the hierarchy come into play. The safety needs are focused on ensuring we do not put ourselves in harm's way and fulfil an innate desire for control and predictability in our lives. These safety needs include:

  • Protection from the elements and danger (e.g., shelter, clothing, PPE)

  • Peace of mind and freedom from fear

  • Job security and/or a means of income

  • Legal protection

  • Financial safety (having a steady income to provide for oneself)

  • Security against accident, sickness and injury both at work and at home

The most common needs people experience at this level include feeling safe within one's own house or workspace, knowing their family is protected when they're away from them, and financial security by having enough funds to afford basic necessities such as food and water. Once these needs are met, individuals will move onto more complex needs.

What can managers do to motivate employees with safety needs?

Managers can:

  • Provide a safe, secure work environment with clear guidelines and responsibilities and ensure that workplace security is appropriate.

  • Ensure that employees know they can be there for their families without fear of judgement or adverse outcomes; this may include family-friendly policies like time off for emergencies, birthdays, flexible working hours and more.

  • Managers should use strategies such as implementing new policies regarding safety and well being, harassment, bullying and equal pay.

  • Consider providing health insurance as part of employee packages.

  • Ensure that all employees go through health and safety training courses and are empowered to proactively speak up when things aren't as they should be.

  • Ensure that they're not overworking their staff, providing them with a great living wage so they can provide for themselves and their families.

  • Ensuring staff are paid on time so that they can manage their finances effectively. 

The psychological needs (Level 3-4)

Level 3: Social needs

When we have fulfilled our safety needs, we quickly become aware of a need to satisfy our social needs, including feeling close to others, interpersonal relationships, and belongingness. We often refer to this level as being about love and belonging. Specific social needs include:

  • A need for friendship: our social psychology drives our desire to have close friends and people we can rely on

  • A need to feel loved and accepted

  • A sense of belonging: this is one of our most important psychological needs, which we can fulfil by being part of groups and clubs or having friendships with people who share similar interests.

  • A sense of love or affection: This refers to the feeling of being loved or cherished by other people.

  • A need for family connection: A feeling that one belongs in a family unit is often significant and closely linked to a sense of love.

  • A need to be liked: Most people know this one; more often than not, a person desires to be liked and to be looked upon in a positive light

Isolation, anxiety, and depression are all undesirable states for a person, and this is where social needs are so important. When these needs are denied, it can be easy for a person to experience a deterioration in their psychological well being.

What can managers do to motivate employees with social needs?

Managers can:

  • Plan and organise activities that involve employees at work or outside the office. Exercises can be as simple as a lunch out with co-workers, going for coffee together after work and lunchtime walk and talks.

  • Hold team-building exercises in or out of work, where individuals are encouraged to bond during social activities such as outings and games.

  • Involve your employees' family in work do's and try to build a community around the business.

  • Have a company newsletter that shares information and helps to build a sense of community; a newsletter is an easy way to disseminate motivational information, even across multiple sites, and provide a sense of direction for staff.

As leaders, we rarely speak of love in business, and I think we're getting it wrong! Maslow said that:

"We must understand love; we must be able to teach it, to create it, to predict it, or else the world is lost to hostility and to suspicion." Abraham Maslow

There's a great book on leadership and love by Steve Farber. In his book "love is just damn good business", he tells us that if we can make love an integral part of business culture, employees and customers start to feel genuinely valued. It seems he agrees with Maslow; by attending to the need for love, you can foster employees that are more loyal, innovative, creative, and inspired, and that translates to a great customer experience.

Level 4: Esteem needs

When we have fulfilled our social needs, we find ourselves seeking esteem needs fulfilment. A need for self-esteem refers to a person's sense of self-worth and typically aligns with a person's ability to live up to their expectations or standards in some regard.

Esteem needs include:

  • A feeling of competence or mastery over one's environment (e.g., a work project, a sporting achievement)

  • A need for self-esteem: A person's sense of self-worth is typically the result of one's ability to live up to their own expectations or standards in some regard

  • Recognition at work, at home or within society in general

  • The desire to be necessary or significant among other people, such as by being considered an expert

  • The need for autonomy and independence, meaning a desire to act as oneself without being told how to behave

What can managers do to motivate employees with esteem needs?

Managers can:

  • Provide a challenging job with opportunities for advancement that match the employee's skills and abilities.

  • Give employees responsibility for projects or tasks which build up their experience, skill base, and self-confidence.

  • Don't put employees in situations beyond their capabilities; the manager's job is to build people up and support them by moving at the right pace for them.

These strategies are great ways to help deal with insecurities by providing an environment where people can feel competent while feeling they live up to your expectations and their own.

The self-fulfilment needs (Level 5)

Level 5: Self-actualisation needs

Once the four levels of the Maslow hierarchy are fulfilled and esteem needs checked off, one can ascend to the pinnacle of Maslow's motivation pyramid where self-actualisation needs live.

Self actualisation is the desire in human nature to fulfil our potential. Abraham Maslow defined it as "...the desire for self-fulfilment and to become more and more of what one is and everything that one is capable of becoming".

Self-fulfilment is the desire to achieve personal growth needs and reach one's full potential. Self-actualisation needs include:

  • A need to be appreciated and recognised, meaning the desire for others to notice your accomplishments

  • The need for creativity, which refers to improving skills and thinking of new ideas or solutions.

  • A need for personal growth, which is the drive to learn more about yourself either by trying out something you never tried before or learning a skill that can improve your self-esteem.

Self actualisation needs also include becoming aware of one's faults to work on them and become better. Managers can help by developing people to become more self-aware and accepting of their weaknesses.

Self awareness of this nature appears in all good learning and development programmes, especially leadership and management courses. Only when a person is aware of their strengths and weaknesses can they work on self-development.

Self-actualisation needs are typically only achieved by a minority of people, often because some skills are hard to come by. Typically, it is difficult for a person to become self-actualised if all other needs are not satisfied, at least partially.

What can managers do to motivate employees with self-actualisation needs?

Managers can:

  • Offer opportunities for professional growth.

  • Provide access to self-help books, articles and videos on topics relevant to the employees' interests. You may consider a learning management system with a library of self-help content.

  • Allow time off from work so they may attend classes or workshops required for their job.

  • Strive to understand a person's higher-level goals and give feedback on how well they are advancing toward self-actualisation (provide guidance when necessary but try to coach rather than tell)

  • Help with difficult decisions by providing a sounding board where the individual can air their thoughts without judgment before making any final decision about what they should do next.

Maslow himself provided an important lesson when he said, "...the person's intellectual integrity must be preserved...he cannot feel like his boss has taken control of him." (Maslow)

Why should managers care about human needs?

If you are a manager or leader of people, Maslow's theory will help you understand your employees' needs and provide you with a framework to motivate them toward positive discretionary behaviour (that's doing positive things because they want to, not because they have to).

Maslow's hierarchy illustrates an individual's inherent desire to be "self-actualised", which is when he or she can use his or her talents and capacities to the fullest. Your aim as a manager or leader should be to fulfil all the needs of your people, as this is the secret sauce for motivation and high performance.

Key Point: Maslow explained that it isn't essential to satisfy all needs at a given level before other higher-level needs emerge. You'd probably agree that it's near impossible to fulfil all needs all of the time.

Maslow advises that the multitude of a person's human needs are most often being met, in part, all at the same time. Lower needs are generally the ones that people have satisfied most.

To help employees satisfy esteem and self-actualisation needs, leaders and managers should endeavour to fulfil the most pressing needs at each level.

People are motivated by a desire to achieve or maintain the conditions that support the five needs. For example, a person will go to great lengths to ensure they have water (or if you're like me, coffee :-)), as without it, the physiological need will go unfulfilled. In this particular example, the result of withholding water will have serious consequences (not advised) and will undoubtedly hamper any ascension toward self-actualisation.

If you want to motivate your team, understanding the hierarchy of needs can give you a structured framework that'll help you do so. A top tip for managers trying to create certain behaviours is that an act has more than one motivation. So focussing on just one need as a lever isn't your best strategy.

Growth needs versus deficiency needs

Maslow believed that deficiency needs (the first four levels), which provide the foundation of his hierarchy, play a significant role in motivating behaviours in human beings.

Physiological, safety, social, and esteem needs all arise from deficiency. That is to say, satisfying these lower-level needs is essential if we are to avoid unpleasant feelings or consequences.

In contrast, Maslow's highest level needs are called growth desires. These emerge from a desire to grow and are not due to a deficiency or lack of something.

If we fail to fulfil deficiency needs, at least partially, then the likelihood of becoming self-actualised is pretty slim; this is why managers should work through the hierarchy of needs, ensuring there are few unfulfilled needs as possible.

Hierarchy caveats

Maslow's hierarchy of needs certainly has its critics. Here are some of the points of contention that are prevalent in critiques of the theory:

"Human needs don't follow a strict hierarchy"

While some studies have shown evidence of hierarchical needs, most research has not substantiated it.

Wahba and Bridwell, in their 'Maslow reconsidered' paper (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0030507376900386), reviewed the swathe of studies testing Maslow's theories. Their work culminated in them reporting a lack of evidence to support the ranking of needs and the existence of a hierarchy.

While Maslow's hierarchy is generally portrayed as following a rigid order, Abraham himself indicated that the 'average order' does not always follow. He said that "...it has been observed that an individual may permanently lose the higher wants in the hierarchy under special conditions".

Maslow explained that we should not see individual needs as sole determinants of specific behaviours; we should examine many behaviours as being motivated, in part, by each of the five needs, with some or all affecting the motivation in some way.

You can find an example in the act of eating, invariably driven by multiple human needs and motivations. In this example, eating may come from the physiological need to fill your stomach. Simultaneously, the act may be motivated by a need to make things feel better or more comfortable. Also, the meal may be eaten with friends meeting the need for social connection. I know that the odd doughnut passes my lips with the multi-faceted needs of hunger and comfort eating after a bad day at the office! If I can do that with friends then all the better.

Motivation theories aren't synonymous with behaviour theory

When considering how to affect changes in behaviour, we can't focus narrowly on just motivation theory; to do so would ignore biological, cultural and situational determinants. As a manager, you need to consider each person and situation individually, considering both basic needs and broader personal preferences.

Conclusion

Abraham Maslow has given a great tool to ground our management of people according to their innate human needs.

Leaders and managers can use the hierarchy of needs in strategic and operational planning to create a positive work environment and increase employee motivation.

But, Maslow's hierarchy of needs isn't the only motivation theory in town; other psychologists and practitioners have served up their own motivation theories, they include:

  • Herzberg's two-factor theory - stated that two factors determine job satisfaction; intrinsic factors (the nature of the work itself) and extrinsic factors (pay, status, working conditions).

  • Vroom's Expectancy theory - suggests that behaviours result from conscious choices made to minimise pain or maximise pleasure. The more confident someone is in the outcome, the higher the motivation is likely to be.

  • Robert House's Path-Goal theory - tells us the primary role of a leader and manager is to motivate people. They do this by clarifying goals and providing a path to achieving them. They must also make clear to employees the rewards for achieving said goals.

  • Adams' Equity theory - explains that people want to balance what they are getting with what they feel others are getting. For example, if you have a higher salary than someone else and the other person is doing more work, the other person will feel less motivated.