When Abraham Maslow created his Hierarchy of Needs, he argued that humans are motivated by five essential needs: physiological, safety, social, self-esteem and self-actualisation (also known as self-fulfilment).
At the bottom of the pyramid are our physiological needs such as food, water, sleep, and warmth. Safety concerns come next, and these include comfort, security, and stability. Moving up the pyramid we come to social needs, such as a sense of belong and friendship, and esteem needs such as a positive self-image, prestige and status, before topping out with self-actualisation which is about feeling fulfilled through growth, advancement and creativity.
Putting theory into practice
But what does this mean for HR professionals and the employees in their care? How do you translate a theoretical tool into something that can help you motivate, recruit and retain employees?
Here are some examples:
- Physiological needs – This includes having a place to work, regular monthly salary, comfortable working environment and essential facilities (such as a tea/coffee making facilities).
- Safety needs – These needs include having formal contracts of employment as well as benefits such as a pension scheme and sick pay. There should also be an emphasis on health and safety in the working environment.
- Social needs – Promoting group working across teams, departments and different levels, as well as encouraging team building through social activities can help satisfy these needs. If you have employees who work from home or other remote locations (perhaps field-based) then it is important to ensure that you and their manager are fulfilling their social needs.
- Self-esteem – At the self-esteem level respect for others and praise is important. A 360-degree feedback and appraisal system can help recognise employees’ contributions and a peer to peer or social recognition programme will celebrate employees’ achievements and confer prestige and respect.
- Self-actualisation – At the highest level personal development plans, training, secondments, mentoring, and the opportunity for promotion enable staff to be the very best they can be. By implementing regular talent planning meetings among managers and HR, having career discussions with employees and offering options such as fast-track management programmes your organisation can fulfil employees’ self-actualisation needs while ensuring they have the expertise to fill future vacancies.
The image below also highlights how the Hierarchy of Needs can work in an organisation.
In Maslow’s theory, employees whose lowest level needs have not been met will make decisions based on compensation, safety, or stability concerns. So it is vital that HR professionals ensure that these needs are fulfilled before others further up the pyramid.
It is also worth noting that employees will default to their lowest level needs if their higher level needs are no longer being satisfied, for example, in an economic downturn employees will also focus on compensation, safety, or stability concerns.
Maslow also introduced the idea that our needs constantly change: as one need is met then so we desire the level above it. The pay rise we received last year ago won’t motivate us for the next five years, the recognition award we were presented with two years ago won’t satisfy our current needs for appreciation, and the training course we did three years ago won’t satisfy our need to be learning new skills and knowledge now.
Modern motivation has moved on from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs alone. But this simple motivation tool remains important and as such it can help HR professionals achieve many organisational goals, such as improved staff retention and employee engagement, as long as they understand how to apply it in a practical manner and continually adapt to meet their employees’ changing needs.