Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
A Model for Supporting Your People Toward Self-Actualization
When your people know that you're treating them right, they'll feel motivated to give their best in return. Conversely, if you ignore your team members' needs, they'll likely feel demotivated or disengaged. They may even end up leaving.
Good leaders recognize that, if they're to build productive and highly successful teams, they need to understand and address the needs and well-being of team members. But this wasn't always the way.
Psychologists used to focus on what was "wrong" with people, but this approach changed in the 1940s and 50s to thinking more about what was "right" about them. Since then, employers have increasingly adopted more positive and collaborative approaches.
Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs was an early and influential model in this field. Published in his 1943 article, "A Theory of Human Motivation," and made popular in his 1954 book, "Motivation and Personality," it can still help us to support and motivate team members today!
Human Basic Needs
Maslow's theory contends that, as we humans strive to meet our most basic needs, we also seek to satisfy a higher set of needs, until we grow to become "self-actualized" or "all that we can be."
At work, this could mean discovering a deep purpose and passion in our role, and delivering true excellence.
It was Maslow's belief that everyone has the potential to self-actualize, but that the hardships of life knock us back and create barriers that we must overcome.
As showcased in an edition of "The Forum" on BBC World Service Radio, he said: "I think of the self-actualizing man [sic] not as the ordinary man with something added, but rather as the ordinary man with nothing taken away."
So, what are our human basic needs?
The most fundamental level is about what keeps our bodies alive and functioning. This is followed by physical, mental and emotional security, and a healthy self-perception.
Maslow's list of motivating needs are:
- Physiological/bodily needs.
- Safety/security needs.
- Love/belonging needs.
- Esteem needs.
- Self-actualization needs.
Maslow's theory is often represented as a pyramid, a triangle or a ladder (see Figure 1).
Maslow didn't create the pyramid himself, but he never publicly rejected such representations, either.
Maslow believed that the higher-level needs of self-esteem and fulfillment can only be addressed once the lower-level needs have been at least partially satisfied. But he took care to explain that it wasn't necessary (or likely possible) to fully satisfy a level of need before the next level emerged as a motivational force.
Figure 1 – Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow's model can help you to identify your team members' needs and to think about what you can do to meet them. It can be especially helpful in your regular one-on-ones when you're thinking about how best to develop your people and enable them to thrive.
Maslow's Levels – Examples
Let's look at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in more detail:
Level 1: Physiology, Body
Physiological needs are biological needs, such as oxygen, food, water, and sleep. They are the basis for the hierarchy and the strongest motivating needs, as our survival depends on satisfying them.
(Matthew Walker's book, "Why We Sleep" reveals just how dangerous extreme sleep deprivation can be.)
Consider the impact of working excessively long hours, in a dark and airless environment, with no access to a restroom. Such careless or cruel treatment of team members does little for productivity in the long run, and employers often have a legal obligation to address these needs. But there is a clear humanitarian imperative to do so, too.
Level 2: Safety, Security
According to Maslow, the need for physical safety becomes evident once a person's biological needs begin to be met. This can mean shelter from the elements, from disease, or from violence, for example.
In affluent, peaceful societies, we may not be acutely aware of security needs until a crisis arises, but it is important to understand this need in every workplace.
For example, as a manager, you have a duty of care to protect your team from working in extreme temperatures, using defective machinery, and facing aggressive co-workers or customers. These are all threats to your team's safety and security, as is exposure to COVID.
Understanding this need will also help you to handle layoffs and redundancies sensitively.
Level 3: Love and Belonging
Once the need for safety is somewhat met, the need for a sense of belonging becomes evident. Maslow states that people seek to overcome feelings of loneliness and alienation by nurturing relationships.
Despite the world's growing digital interconnectedness, managers increasingly observe this need, especially in virtual or "distributed" workplaces. Hence, our growing dependence on virtual meetings and messaging apps.
Be sure to give special thought to lone workers, such as delivery drivers or freelance contractors, and to people from minority communities. Pave their way into your team with positive narratives and sustain a warm welcome beyond onboarding.
Level 4: Esteem
Once the first three classes of needs are largely met, the need for esteem arises. This comprises both the respect and recognition a person gets from others, and their own sense of worth, competence and independence.
If these needs are not met at work, an employee may feel frustrated or inferior, and may become withdrawn or angry.
So, do your bit to create an inclusive workplace where all team members feel heard and valued. Be ready to provide training, mentoring or coaching as appropriate, and remember to reward and praise your people for their contributions. You can also encourage collaboration and initiative by delegating skillfully.
Level 5: Self-Actualization
According to Maslow, self-actualization is when a person can do what they feel they are "meant" to do and be who they are "meant" to be. The need for self-actualization is present in all of us, but can only be met once all of the lower needs are sufficiently satisfied.
Self-actualization can involve brief, transcendent "peak experiences" but it's also characterized by a continually renewed commitment to grow despite any fears we may have.
As a manager, you might feel daunted or even turned off by Maslow's talk of awe, wonder and liberation. But it is just as important to help team members fulfill this need as it with the four previous needs.
If you don't, your people may become disillusioned, restless and unproductive. They may feel that you're holding them back or aren't interested in their unique thoughts and ideas. This could lead to them looking for fulfillment elsewhere. And could result in you missing out on exceptional work from them!
Maslow noted that "self-actualizers" are not pursuing happiness, although they might be lucky enough to experience it. Rather, they're driven by their sense of values, purpose and potential.
Later variations of the original hierarchy include the addition of three more levels (Cognitive, Aesthetic and Transcendence), and the reduction to just three levels (Existence, Relatedness and Growth).
You can find out more about the latter development in our article, Alderfer's ERG Theory.
The Meaning of Maslow's Model for Managers
So, how can Maslow's model help managers? Here are four main takeaways:
- Meet people's basic human needs. Sounds simple, but even the most able, confident and respected people have basic human needs that must continue to be met if they are to remain motivated and productive. This is especially relevant during a crisis, whether it's a global event, such as a pandemic, or a personal problem, such as debt.
- Motivation is more than money. Hard cash is not enough! People have many needs that have to be met above and beyond this. (See our article, Herzberg's Motivators and Hygiene Factors, to find out more.)
- Satisfaction can be achieved in many different ways. The model gives managers a whole range of tools that they can use to build team satisfaction, even if they don't have much money to hand out. It usually doesn't cost much to provide a safe working environment. It's often inexpensive to have team socials where team members can get to know one another outside the work environment. And it costs nothing to compliment people on a job well done.
- Self-actualization can be achieved by anyone. Finally, Maslow's conviction that we all have the potential to be self-actualizers can be a source of hope and encouragement for everyone – including you!
Psychologist and philosopher Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs was first published in 1943, but it still has practical application in today's workplaces.
It provides us with a framework for supporting and enabling our team members to feel healthy, happy and fulfilled. We can do this by meeting the five main motivational needs:
- Physiology, body.
- Safety, security.
- Love, belonging.
Satisfying these needs not only helps employees to be who they want to be, but it can also motivate them to continually learn, grow and perform better for themselves and their organizations.
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