Lack of motivation in the workplace can be a sign that workers’ needs are not being met. In this article we’ll look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a popular motivational theory of addressing human needs with the goal of finding self-fulfillment. We will look at how these needs present themselves in the workplace, how motivation is impacted when they are not met, and at ideas and actions to counteract this cycle.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s theory is based on five types of core needs. Often depicted as tiers in a pyramid, the needs residing in lower tiers must be met before we can attend to those higher up.
The order of needs looks like this:
- Physical – the need for air, water, food, sleep
- Security – the need for safety, shelter, stability
- Social – the need for intimate relationships, being loved, belonging
- Ego – the need for self-esteem, prestige, recognition for accomplishments
- Self-Actualization – the need for development, creativity and to realize one’s full potential
The first four levels are considered “deficiency needs.” If we are lacking in any of these levels, we can become distracted, anxious, or depressed. If all of those needs are met, we are free to explore our “growth needs” or our uniquely human need to grow as an individual.
Our biological needs – air, water, food, shelter – are simple but vital for survival, and when they are not met, put all other needs on pause.
For example: You’re due to take a lunch break, but you get held up for an additional half hour at the end of a meeting. Your body and brain respond biologically and emotionally to the need to eat. When you’re “hangry,” your ability to concentrate on work steadily decreases as the urgency to address your hunger increases.
An occasional meeting that runs long is not a big issue. However, a company culture overly focused on efficiency or “workaholic” behavior can drastically impact our ability or willingness to address physical needs during work time. In this environment, motivation to perform in this environment is based on pressure not genuine interest, and that pressure trumps our need to take care of ourselves.
To prevent this:
- Build ample break time into the workday, and encourage employees to actually use that time to address their physical needs.
- Make water and healthy food options easily accessible and affordable.
- Set up separate break spaces that can serve as “shelter” from regular work during these break times.
Above all, promote a work culture that supports the concept of self-care and balance. Knowing you care about their well-being means employees feel empowered to take care of themselves and then get back to the task at hand.
Security in the workplace can mean feeling physically safe, but it can also mean a desire for stability, order, predictability and control around salary, work schedules, team structures, work load and performance oversight – to name a few.
If work hours aren’t consistent, employees cannot adequately plan their lives. If paychecks don’t arrive on time or aren’t correct, distrust of management will ferment. If work assignments consistently change or employees are micromanaged, they won’t feel confident in their abilities. All of these circumstances lead to feelings of conflict, instability and a lack of trust in an employer’s ability to take care of its employees.
If you personally experience security gaps at work, report your experience to the appropriate resource, or find a colleague who can advocate for you. For your team, structure and consistency are key to providing a stable, secure workplace:
- Give team members space to do their work, and schedule coaching/feedback sessions to foster discussion on areas of improvement.
- When challenges do arise, get buy in and implement ideas from team members as much as possible.
- Be transparent about how you will manage those challenges and the amount of flexibility you have to address them.
You’ll need some flexibility based on your unique circumstances, but if you are honest and consistent in your approach, employees will eventually feel secure in knowing what to expect. If you’re fair, they will support the process and the mission.
The ease with which we feel welcome in a group, or find people “like us” has a huge impact on how we perform at work. Feeling like an outsider means you’re less likely to engage, offer ideas, or go the extra mile for fear of being ridiculed. When we feel welcome, we’re more likely to trust those around us and to trust ourselves to be ourselves. Our ideas and efforts are validated, thus motivating us to do and be better.
If you cannot express yourself authentically and still fit in, it may be best to leave the environment altogether. If there are aspects of your team you can support, find a colleague who can help you understand how those dynamics work and advocate for you to get involved.
As a manager, close observation of and communication with team members can help uncover gaps in inclusivity within your team:
- Meet regularly with your team members individually to get to know them and their social preferences.
- Establish opportunities for your team members to interact inside and outside of work, and pay close attention to how they collaborate.
- Play to the strong bonds you see and evaluate how those dynamics can be spread broadly across the group.
The goal is not to make everyone get along with everyone else all the time. Balance finding harmony within your team while allowing individuals to be themselves as a best practice to building an engaged, motivated team.
When we learn to ride a bike, we start with training wheels for support and balance. We build self esteem by mastering this task. Once we have the mechanics down, the training wheels come off, and a steadying hand on the back of the seat helps us learn to balance the bike while moving. Eventually that hand lets go, and you’re riding on your own.
Like riding a bike, to meet the needs of our ego at work, we must build esteem within ourselves through an ability to perform tasks independently. We also need a support system that helps us reach our goal and a recognition system that validates our accomplishments.
To motivate ourselves this way at work, we must seek out work that showcases our abilities while challenging us to master new skills.
Just as with social needs, as a team leader, observation and communication are key to understanding what support individual team members require in this area:
- Meet regularly with your employees to discuss whether they like the work they are doing and where they see their experience directing them.
- Reward them with work that reflects their stated needs and achievements.
- Consistently and genuinely recognize accomplishments among your team members individually and publicly.
Also, it is important to understand what kind of recognition resonates best with each team member – a pat on the back, formal recognition among peers, bonuses, extra PTO, etc. Offering timely praise and a reward that fits their personality will go a long way to keeping them motivated to perform.
Maslow defined self-actualization as the desire to “become everything that one is capable of becoming.”
The need to self-actualize can materialize when you’ve “tapped out” all of the experiences and knowledge in a given circumstance, but you know you can do more, and you can do better. Awareness of this need to grow comes to the fore because all other needs have been addressed. Free from distraction, you can holistically examine the sum of your efforts and decide what really gives you a sense of fulfillment.
This level of freedom has its own motivating power, making it that much easier for you or your team members to take the next step in a self-development journey.
To foster this, find continuing education opportunities, higher level certifications, or resources that allow the pursuit of those passions.
At this level, it’s possible to realize one’s life purpose. If that person is you, congratulations! If that person is working for you, you’ll benefit greatly by having an employee who is naturally motivated by living and working in their passion.
Over time, the hierarchical structure of Maslow’s theory has been deconstructed with later psychologists acknowledging that our needs overlap or change in order of significance depending on individual circumstances. An awareness of and constant communication around your and your team’s needs is the vital component for meeting those needs, regardless of their order.
Have you used Maslow’s theory in your workplace? Tell us about your experience in the comments!
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