Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Building a Happier, More Satisfied Team

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - Building a Happier, More Satisfied Team

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Meet people's needs one level at a time.

Good leaders recognize that if they're to build productive and highly successful teams, they need to understand and look after the needs and well-being of team members.

This is a fundamental part of the "emotional contract" between leaders and their teams: when team members know they're being looked after by their leader, they'll usually give their best in return.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is a popular way of thinking about people's needs. Published by psychologist Abraham Maslow in his 1943 article, "A Theory of Human Motivation," this theory contends that as humans strive to meet our most basic needs, we also seek to satisfy a higher set of needs.

Maslow presents this set of needs as a hierarchy, consisting of:

  1. Physiological/bodily needs.
  2. Safety needs.
  3. Love/belonging needs.
  4. Self-esteem.
  5. Self-actualization (the desire to be "all that you can be").

The theory argues that the most fundamental level starts with the physiological need for food, water and shelter. This is followed by security and social needs. Maslow believed that the higher-level needs, such as self-esteem and self-fulfillment, can only be met after the lower level needs have been satisfied.

Understanding Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's hierarchic theory (see figure 1) is often represented as a pyramid, with the lower levels representing the more fundamental needs, and the upper levels representing the growth/being needs, and ultimately the need for self-actualization.

According to the theory, the higher needs in the hierarchy become evident only after all the needs that are lower down in the pyramid are met.

Figure 1 – Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Diagram

These levels are:

Level 1: Physiology, Body

Physiological needs are biological needs and include the needs for oxygen, food, water, shelter, etc. They are the basis for the hierarchy and are the strongest needs because if a person were deprived of all needs, the physiological ones come first in the person's search for satisfaction.

Level 2: Security

According to Maslow, the need for security becomes evident only after a person's physiological needs are met. While most adults are not acutely aware of security needs until a crisis arises, it is important to understand this need and for managers to provide a safe workplace.

Level 3: Belonging, Social

Once the needs for safety are met, the need for a sense of belonging, one in which a give-and-take relationship is nurtured, becomes evident. Maslow states that people seek to overcome feelings of loneliness and alienation, and managers must understand this to ensure employee engagement, productivity and motivation.

Level 4: Self-Esteem

Once the first three classes of needs are met, the need for self-esteem can become dominant. Because this includes the esteem a person gets from others, managers who understand this can use this tool to help ensure employees and team members feel valued and respected, driving up self-esteem.

This will positively impact the employee and the employee's motivation levels, productivity, ability to work on a team and alone, etc. On the other hand, if these needs are not met, an employee may become frustrated, feel inferior and worthless and he or she may withdraw.

Level 5: Self-Actualization

The need for self-actualization develops only after all of the foregoing needs are satisfied. According to Maslow, self-actualization is a person's need to do what they feel they are meant to do. As a manager, it is important to help employees or team members find this, otherwise the employee will become dissatisfied, restless, and unproductive, and may even look for satisfaction elsewhere.

Using the Theory

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is not so much a technique or process to use as an idea to have in mind when you're thinking about how you meet a team member's needs (for example, during a quarterly review).

Managers often instinctively want to use salary raises as a way of motivating team members. However, the reality is usually that they have a fixed "pot" of raises to offer to their team members, and this often does not allow the rewards they want to give.

Maslow's theory is important for two reasons. First, it points out that people's needs are not just met by hard cash (which arguably addresses levels 1 and 2). People have many needs that have to be met, and while people may be well paid, they can still be unsatisfied if these needs aren't met. (See our article, Herzberg's Motivators and Hygiene Factors, for more on this.)

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Second, it gives managers a whole range of tools that they can use to build team satisfaction, even if they don't have much money to give out. It usually doesn't cost much to provide a safe working environment. It's often inexpensive to have team socials (for example, around a barbecue) 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.

As such, Maslow's Hierarchy gives hard-pressed managers "permission" to be "good bosses," knowing that as such, they're doing their best to build highly effective, highly productive teams.

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Comments (8)
  • Over a month ago april123 wrote
    Hi Midgie

    I found that showing sensitivity for people's circumstances is very important. If they know that you're sensitive to their circumstances, it's easier for them to trust you. If they trust you and believe that you have their best interests at heart it helps them to be motivated. It means taking into consideration simple things like the type of Christmas function we held. If it was too fancy, these people simply didn't feel comfortable and would choose not to attend. We also gave people the choice between gifts and included a lovely food hamper as one of the gifts.

    On the flip side of the coin, you have to be careful not to be patronizing and still treat people with dignity and respect. Open and honest communication is key...they have to know exactly where they stand with you, what may be expected from them and that they have an open line of communication to you.

    I'm also curious to hear what others suggest.

  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi April,
    Thanks for sharing your story and how different life situations can indeed influence an employees level of motivation!

    When people carry a heavy burden that their food and shelter needs are fragile and may or may not be met, then it is more challenging to focus on work and contributing!

    Even in more 'modern' societies, managers need to be aware that not everyone's basic needs of food and shelter are being met. That is why getting to know people on a personal level can give managers some insight to the person, to their situations and to what makes them tick.

    April, do you have any suggestions as to how to motivate employees where their 'basic' needs are causing stress and anxiety? Or, anyone else, thoughts on how to address this with your employees?

  • Over a month ago april123 wrote
    Living in a country where many people are poor and live in informal housing (shantytowns), I've had to deal with people who've barely had the first two levels covered. Even though they had food and water, they struggled to get money for transport, their living conditions were unsafe and they felt inferior in the workplace (because of their backgrounds). It is extremely challenging to try and build a team in such conditions. People are stressed, preoccupied with their life challenges and very defensive - and understandably so.

    The Maslow hierarchy is a priceless tool to give a manager insight into certain behaviors (or lack thereof) in staff members.

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