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Hierarchy of Needs: Motivating Employees with Maslow’s Theory - HRDQ

Hierarchy of Needs: Motivating Employees with Maslow’s Theory

There have been numerous theories developed by researchers to explain human motivation. However, while it's simple enough to understand what motivation is (a force that helps to jumpstart, maintain, and guide behavior oriented towards a goal), it can be more challenging to pinpoint what leads to motivation in the first place.

One of the best-known theories of motivation is Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Often represented visually in a pyramid shape, this theory states that we are first motivated by basic needs, which must be accomplished before pursuing more complex needs.

Initially introduced in 1943, Maslow's hierarchy of needs isn't just a psychological idea but also a valuable tool that we can use in the workplace and in our personal lives.

How exactly can you use Maslow's theory to motivate your employees? Let's dive in and learn more about the hierarchy of needs and how utilizing this tool can boost motivation in your workplace.

What Is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs?

Maslow's hierarchy of needs was first published in a paper entitled "A Theory of Human Motivation." It was later expanded into a book named Motivation and Personality.

The basic idea is that individuals are motivated to achieve their most basic needs before they are motivated to work towards more advanced needs. While Maslow believed that all people desire innately to be self-actualized (meaning reaching their ultimate potential), he saw that one could only strive towards this goal once other basic needs are met.

Maslows Hierarchy of Needs

While the hierarchy of needs has been expanded in the decades since it was first introduced, Maslow initially divided it into five categories. These are commonly displayed in the shape of a pyramid, with the most basic needs at the bottom and the ultimate goal, self-actualization, at the top.

Physiological needs and safety needs are typically described as basic needs, while social needs and esteem needs are classified as psychological needs. Self-actualization exists in a category of its own, known as self-fulfillment needs.

Physiological Needs

On the bottom level of the pyramid in Maslow's hierarchy, we find physiological needs. These include the most basic needs of any human that are necessary for survival, such as food, water, shelter, warmth, clothing, and sleep.

Woman Purchasing Food

To Maslow, these are the primary needs of any person. They, therefore, must be met before motivation to achieve any other needs arises.

Safety and Security Needs

Once a person has a stable basis for acquiring the basic physiological needs of existence, they can then move on to the next level of security and safety. These needs can include working towards financial security, prioritizing one's physical and mental health, and taking steps to prevent injury or accidents. This level is where people start to exert order and control over their lives.

Safety And Security Needs

Examples of actions people might be motivated to take at this level include contributing to a retirement account, purchasing a home in a neighborhood with a low crime rate, or obtaining health insurance.

Love and Belonging Needs (Social Needs)

Also sometimes referred to as social needs, Maslow posited that people are motivated to acquire things like love, acceptance, and belonging once they have met their physiological and safety needs.

Human Social Needs

Humans have an innate need to have interpersonal relationships and feel like part of a group. However, different people might satisfy these needs in different ways. For example, some might have their needs met through family, friends, and romantic relationships, while others might seek out religious organizations, community groups, or social groups.

Esteem Needs

When someone has satisfied the first three levels of Maslow's hierarchy, the idea is that they then can focus their motivation on their esteem needs. This is where individuals can work to accomplish things in their lives that earn them the appreciation and respect of those around them.

This level recognizes people's drive towards feelings of prestige and accomplishment. However, it also refers to one's relationship with oneself in the form of personal worth and self-esteem. For this reason, Maslow broke this level down into two categories: esteem for oneself and the desire for respect from other people.

Employee Feeling Accomplished

In his writings on the topic, Maslow explains that this step is most important for children and adolescents. In an ideal scenario, where an individual can reach this level on the hierarchy early enough in life, they can then move on to the level of self-actualization as they enter adulthood.

Self-Actualization Needs

The highest rung on Maslow's hierarchy is that of self-actualization. Self-actualization refers to a person's ability to be self-fulfilled, realize their potential, and seek growth and peak experiences. According to Maslow, this is the level where an individual is motivated to become the best person they can be, and is driven to accomplish everything they can.

Taking Growth Steps

Self-actualized people are less concerned with other people's opinions, focused on personal growth, and highly self-aware. As a result, they are motivated to live up to their true potential.

Another significant factor that influences what motivates a person is whether or not they have an internal locus of control. If you checked out our recent blog post on the topic, you'd see interesting overlaps between the self-actualization needs level and having an internal locus of control.

The Extended Version of the Hierarchy

Extended Hierarchy Pyramid

While the five levels discussed above are the most commonly referenced stages of Maslow's hierarchy, it's worth noting that Maslow later added cognitive, aesthetic, and transcendence needs as he continued to work on his theory.

Cognitive Needs

Man Gaining Knowledge

Located in the expanded pyramid above esteem needs and below aesthetic needs, Maslow added the level of cognitive needs in 1970. These include the motivation to explore, gain knowledge and understanding, and be curious. This level is also where individuals are driven to find both meaning and predictability in their lives.

Aesthetic Needs

Employee Working In Home

Above cognitive needs and below self-actualization, aesthetic needs have to do with a person's motivation to appreciate and seek beauty in the world. This has to do with both finding beauty in nature as well as in one's day-to-day life. Beyond that, at this level, an individual is driven to beautify their own life, including their own home and themselves.

Transcendence Needs

This third additional level sits above self-actualization as the new peak of the pyramid. This level is when an individual is motivated by spiritual needs and a desire to give oneself to something beyond oneself. This can be religious or spiritual, but it can also refer to giving oneself wholly to things like service to others, the pursuit of science, or experiences with nature.

Employee Motivated Spiritually

You will sometimes see the expanded pyramid broken down into two basic categories. The bottom half of the pyramid, from the physiological needs level to the esteem needs level, is often labeled as "deficiency needs." Essentially, these are the basic needs that a person must achieve to bring them to a baseline from which they can grow.

The top half of the pyramid, from cognitive needs to transcendence needs, is given the label of "growth needs." These are the motivations individuals can afford to pursue once they have brought themselves up to a sufficient personal level from which they can grow beyond their physical and personal needs.

How Can You Use Maslow's Theory to Motivate Employees?

While you can see how Maslow's theory could be used in one's personal life, it can also be an incredibly valuable tool in the workplace. You can use the hierarchy as a map for creating a supportive environment for your workers and also work to apply the theory to understand what motivates your employees on an individual basis.

Company Motivation Meeting

Using Maslow's hierarchy in the workplace can be seen as an application of the platinum rule, where you work to understand where your employees are coming from and treat them the way they want to be treated. You can learn more about the platinum rule here.

How to Use Maslow's Theory to Create an Environment That Motivates Employees

When you understand Maslow's hierarchy of needs, you can use it as a rubric to evaluate the environment and culture of your workplace. By working to help your employees meet their basic needs, you are making it possible for them to be motivated toward higher goals within the organization.

At the level of physiological needs, this can mean providing a comfortable and pleasant working environment for your workers. Incredibly, small things like keeping the thermostat a few degrees too low or providing uncomfortable chairs can damage employee motivation and productivity. By investing in creating an enjoyable and comfortable workspace, you can rest assured that your workers aren't spending their time focused on the wrong things.

When it comes to security needs, you can help provide precise descriptions of each job, be transparent about your organization's financial status and projections, and provide compensation and benefits that help your workers feel secure in their careers.

As you can imagine, a workplace that doesn't provide basic physiological or security needs will not be productive. You'll likely find that your workers are phoning it in most days, that is, if they aren't busy shopping for another job.

Satisfied Company Employee

At the social needs level, you can work to cultivate a positive culture in the workplace and set up opportunities for employees to socialize outside of the workplace. You can also encourage workers to find a healthy balance between work and life, which can help avoid burnout and improve job satisfaction.

You can also help your employees at the esteem needs level by providing opportunities to display their talents and skills in the workplace. Even small things, like giving each worker stationary with their name on it, can go a long way in boosting the employees' esteem and encouraging them to be motivated towards higher goals. Workers can also appreciate being included in decision-making processes and goal setting, as it helps them feel as though they are being recognized for their ideas and contributions.

Finally, at the self-actualization needs level, you will want to provide opportunities for your employees to fulfill their potential within your organization. This might be through providing career development opportunities, job rotation to increase exposure and experience, or opportunities to be innovative within the brand. Through supportive leadership, you can help encourage your workers to find their motivation to become the best they can be both in and out of the workplace.

How to Use Maslow's Theory to Better Understand What Motivates Individual Employees

An alternative way to understand Maslow's hierarchy of needs within the workplace is to think of each level as a step in advancing an individual's career. Doing so can help you understand what will motivate different employees at your workplace. There's a good chance that people in different seasons of their careers will be motivated by different things.

It's worth noting that the below descriptions are, of course, generalizations that won't apply to everyone in your organization. However, through these examples, you'll be able to better understand how to use Maslow's hierarchy to motivate employees.

For example, new hires fresh out of high school or college could be viewed as motivated by physiological needs. Financially on their own for the first time and new to the adult world, they are focused on meeting the basic needs that come along with beginning a career and starting a life on their own. These employees might be primarily motivated by financial incentives.

Employees about a decade into their career might fall in the safety needs level of Maslow's hierarchy and be ready to enter a new phase of life, such as starting a family and buying a home. Job security is important at this level, and you might find that these employees are motivated by receiving active recognition for their work.

Motivated Company Employees

When an employee has been in their career for about twenty years, you could consider them at the third level of the hierarchy, social needs. Motivation for these workers might come from allowing them to use their expertise in a mid-management role.

Individuals at the peak of their career could be considered to reside in the fourth, or esteem needs, level of the hierarchy. This is where workers might be motivated by taking on a leadership role and having the freedom to be a decision-maker and lead a team.

Finally, you have individuals in the last phase of their career before retirement. At this level, the self-actualization needs level, the employee has reached the top of their career ladder. Individuals at this level are often motivated by having opportunities to share their wisdom and knowledge with others and allowing them to participate in succession planning.

Understanding Maslow's Hierarchy Can Help You Motivate Your Employees to Do Their Best Work

While there are many different motivational theories, Maslow's hierarchy has stood the test of time. More than three-quarters of a century later, organizations around the globe use his hierarchy to understand what motivates their employees to do their best work.

Motivated Company Employee

As a manager or a business owner, you strive to be an example of Maslow's highest level on the hierarchy of needs that your employees can look to for inspiration and motivation. An essential part of being self-actualized is self-awareness. When you and the other leaders in your organization gain awareness of your leadership style, you can be more effective in directing your team, regardless of where they fall in the motivation pyramid. If you're interested in acquiring more insight into your leadership style, check out our management development tool What's My Leadership Style.

Do you have any questions about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs or how you can use it in your company? If you do, please feel free to leave a comment down below, and we'll get back to you within a day or two! We make it a point to reply to every comment or question we receive and would be more than happy to assist you however possible! 

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About our author

Bradford R. Glaser

Brad is President and CEO of HRDQ, a publisher of soft-skills learning solutions, and HRDQ-U, an online community for learning professionals hosting webinars, workshops, and podcasts. His 35+ years of experience in adult learning and development have fostered his passion for improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals.