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Updated: Apr 3, 2023

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is not a new theory. In fact, his paper titled "A Theory of Human Motivation" and his subsequent 1954 book titled Motivation and Personality proposed that humans have five core needs that form human behavioural motivation. Furthermore, Maslow states that before humans can move on to the next level of fulfillment, the preceding level's needs must be addressed before they can move on to the next level of fulfillment.

There was a time in the workplace when just being able to fill the basic physiological needs what enough to perform a task. This is why in the early industrial age, we had children as young as eight going into mines and risking their lives to help put a roof over their family's heads and food on the table. Children working in mines is obviously an extreme example, but it makes my point. Minimal wages are no longer enough to make people come to work, especially in a first-world country with a high standard of living and a labour shortage.

Using Maslow's hierarchy of needs can help employee engagement practitioners understand their employees' needs. Additionally, it can help guide in creating a roadmap to where an organization needs to improve to empower its employees and increase their level of engagement.

Physiological Needs: These are the basic needs for survival (air, water, food, shelter, sleep, clothing etc.) Fair, equitable compensation and benefits, reasonable working hours and a comfortable working environment should satisfy this part of the triangle. Employees need to be compensated well enough to financially provide the basic survival needs for themselves and their families. Do the hours of work allow enough time for them to get adequate sleep, and are breeks flexible so they can take care of their biological needs?

According to the Mckinsey 2022 Great Attrition report, inadequate total compensation is currently the second highest reason Canadians leave their jobs. So, if employees are overwhelmingly complaining about wages in the employee surveys or the exit interview feedback is about compensation, a comprehensive job analysis to benchmark compensation and benefits against your competitors and the general market could be beneficial to see if any adjustments need to be made.

Safety Needs: These are the needs that make people feel safe and secure (physical and mental safety, job security, and access to resources). Do your people feel physically and psychologically safe in the workplace? ? Is the environment free from discrimination and violence? Are the health and safety policies and training programs up to date? Are they on trend and valid? Do you have wellness programs where employees are engaged?

Do managers care about and inspire their people? According to the same survey, this is the third highest reason employees are leaving their jobs in 2022. Does the culture support sharing ideas for innovation, or is it ignored or discounted? Layoffs and disruption through turnover can also impact how secure one feels about their place in the organization. Developing an employee-first culture built on fairness, communication, and transparency can help mitigate any feeling of lack of job security or a previously unsafe psychological environment, but this kind of change takes a long time.

Belonging Needs: These are social needs and involve a feeling of belonging (interpersonal relationships, affiliating, connectedness, and being part of a group.) It needs to go beyond psychological safety to invoke a culture belonging in your organization. It starts with recruitment and onboarding and continues throughout the employee lifecycle. There needs to be an atmosphere where everyone belongs and can contribute. Diversity, acceptance, and inclusion are essential to building a culture of trust, collaboration, and transparency. The mission, vision and values must be consistently applied so that the expected behaviours are clear and there is no misunderstanding of expectations. Leadership needs to walk the talk so that employees can feel connected to each other and the organization and understand their purpose.

Once the first three tiers have been satisfied, employees will begin to show signs of empowerment and care for each other and the organization, but if the next tier has no programs in place for your employees to engage in, they will remain stagnated and unengaged. Therefore, stages three and four of the pyramid are essential. This is why organizations need human resources personnel to develop programs and coach leaders to empower employees, develop themselves, and go beyond the job's basic requirements.

Self-Esteem: Engagement begins when employees feel empowered to go beyond the job's basic requirements (self-worth, accomplishment, and respect.) Maslow classified esteem needs into two categories: (i) esteem for oneself and (ii) the desire for reputation or respect from others. Therefore, there must be opportunities for employees to develop personally and professionally. Employees need to know that they are accountable for their performance by setting their own goals through regular coaching and feedback sessions. There should be opportunities to participate in projects and teams outside their regular duties and be allowed to take higher levels of responsibility if this is something they are comfortable with and want to do. Finally, employees want to feel valued for their efforts and must be recognized and be able to recognize others.

Therefore, time and effort must be put into developing performance management programs that allow employees to set their own goals; management needs to coach instead of managing their employees. Additionally, learning and development programs, mentorships, team building, leadership activities and recognition and reward programs are all great ways of making your employees feel valued and have a purpose in the organization.

Maslow's theory refers to self-actualization as a "growth need." It is separated from the other four needs he refers to as "deficiency needs." If a person fails to meet the deficiency needs, they will experience harmful or unpleasant results. Some byproducts of unmet deficiency needs are Illness, starvation, loneliness and self-doubt. In employment, these byproducts result in absenteeism, presenteeism (silently quitting), disability claims, accidents, and turnover.

On the other hand, self-actualization can make people happier, and because it is a "growth need," people will not be harmed if it goes unfulfilled. Thus when human resources and leadership can help an employee meet the other four needs, self-actualization becomes a priority, and the employee is open to becoming engaged and energized by the work and less likely to leave the organization.

Self-Actualization: The realization of a person's potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences. Finally, employees are ready to be fully engaged at this stage and can contribute positively towards a greater goal. As a result, they have greater pride and ownership in their work, take opportunities to contribute, voice their views constructively, and inspire others to do the same. If everything up to this point is in place in the organization, there will be a space for creativity and innovation to happen organically.


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