Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Applied to Employee Engagement

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Applied to Employee Engagement

We often come across clients that deal with the challenge of an unmotivated workforce and who struggle to engage them in a way that increases productivity. Employee engagement is indeed one of the core components of an effective wellbeing programme.

So what motivates and engages employees?

The earliest and most widespread version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs includes five motivational needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.

At the bottom of the hierarchy, you have your physiological needs: food, water, basic human needs. Building on top of that, you have safety, then love/belonging, then esteem, and finally, self-actualisation. The pyramid shows a path of growth in an individual’s motivation as they satisfy one need and move up to the next level.

The challenge is that many of us, due to the demands and pressure of our daily lives, find ourselves stuck on the bottom rung of the hierarchy of needs.  We are so focused on our basic physiological needs – breathing, food, water, shelter, clothing, and sleep – that we ignore our higher needs of love and belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation. We care less about connecting with others and helping the people around us.

Maslow’s hierarchy provides the basis for the kind of managerial thinking that focuses on financial rewards. The rationale is that financial rewards fulfils a fundamental need in the hierarchy and will therefore motivate staff.

Seeing such needs as more fundamental in Maslow’s hierarchy than self-esteem and respect means that the latter are often being neglected.

The Power of Small Wins

In a wide-ranging study of employee motivation, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer asked hundreds of employees to maintain a diary chronicling their peaks and valleys in motivation at work. They eventually analysed 12,000 diary entries in total and what they discovered was totally contrary to Maslow’s hierarchy and conventional managerial wisdom.

In fact, Amabile and Kramer talked with 600 managers about what they thought was the single-most important motivator for employees at work. A shocking 95% of them got the answer wrong.

It’s not money, safety, security, or pressure that drives employees at work. It’s not the supposedly foundational needs in Maslow’s hierarchy.

The most important motivator for employees at work is what Amabile and Kramer call “the power of small wins“: employees are highly productive and driven to do their best work when they feel that they are making progress every day toward a meaningful goal.

Empowerment and Belonging

Another revealing study is based on psychologist Susan David’s work with highly engaged employees. When asking what made them so engaged and excited about their work, 96% of the employees didn’t mention pay at all.

Instead, David’s findings dovetailed with Amabile and Kramer’s discovery. In describing their motivations at work, highly engaged employees “highlighted feeling autonomous and empowered, and a sense of belonging on their teams.”

Non-hierarchical thinking about employee needs has been proven to motivate and drive performance more than traditional hierarchical thinking.

How are you increasing your staffs’ feelings of belonging and importance?

Are you fulfilling your employees’ upper needs and supporting them to achieve self-actualisation?

If you are interested in finding out more about our best-practice strategies for motivating and engaging staff, please do get in touch.



Neil cropped

Neil Shah

Chief De-stressing Officer

The Stress Management Society