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Why You Need to Revisit Maslow

by Derek Irvine

Balls in balance on fulcrumRecognize This! — The hierarchy of needs can have a lot of value, but only if we really understand how needs are fulfilled in the workplace.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has staying power. It may often be reduced to an oversimplified pyramid, as I’ve written about before, and has its share of critics, but there is a silver lining!

The longer a theory hangs around, the better the chances that folks can return to the original thinking, debunk common myths, and pick out the true value of the thing. So let’s re-evaluate how a needs hierarchy ties into notions of engagement and recognition in business settings.

Where do we stand right now?

There are three primary levers that organizations can use to fulfill employees’ needs, aligned to the traditional hierarchy. Two of those- base salary and benefits– mostly target basic needs like food, shelter, and safety. Once a certain threshold has been reached, though, the incremental value of continuing to fulfill these needs tends to have diminishing returns – especially as focus shifts to higher order needs.

The third lever- recognition– represents a much smaller slice of the overall compensation picture (typically around 1-2%), and yet has the larger potential impact in reaching across the higher values of belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. These dynamics are illustrated in the smaller of the two pyramids.

Reimagination of Maslow

What does recent research say about Maslow?

To understand the scope of the impact of recognition, we need to take a deeper look into how needs are actually fulfilled.

Recent research based on global data from Gallup finds support for a “tendency, but not a strong one” for needs to be achieved approximately in the order that Maslow theorized. It is important to be clear that this does not mean a person satisfies a need at one level before moving onto the next one in this linear and lockstep process. Nor does it mean that every person achieves each need in exactly the same order and timeframes as everyone else.

Instead, we can think of need profiles, where individuals can “simultaneously work on a number of needs regardless of the fulfillment of other needs.”

Moreover, individuals need profiles vary, ranging from a focus on a few needs to the full spectrum. The former most likely address only physiological and safety needs (influenced much more by the country one lives in than specific individual circumstances). Further along the spectrum, individuals expand their focus to a combination of basic and psychosocial needs (like belonging, esteem, and self-actualization), some trending towards Maslow’s order and others not.

What do need profiles mean for employee engagement?

A workforce is a collection of need profiles across the hierarchy. Each employee differs in terms of complexity (how many needs are simultaneously being focused on) and salience (how needs are personally ranked in terms of importance and impact). Furthermore, most employee need profiles will be focused on psychosocial aspects over which employees feel they have the most control. It just so happens these are also the aspects that are closely tied to engagement.

Practically, this suggests the pathway to engagement occurs through broad values-based initiatives focused on fulfilling a variety of different needs, appreciating their fluidity rather than a narrow focus on maxing out any particular level of the hierarchy. These dynamics are captured in the larger of the two pyramids.

Recognition works across need profiles!

The challenge is meeting people where they are in terms of their need profiles. Relationships will matter more to some employees, task mastery or esteem will matter more to others, while still others will prefer some balance between the three. Social recognition is powerful because it can raise the total level of fulfillment across this diverse set of need profiles, eventually resulting in greater employee engagement that is also aligned to core organizational values.

For example, recognition can focus on a full range of behaviors that contribute to achieving a value of quality. For those with strong needs for belonging, recognition can emphasize the key role that developing relationships had in helping a project team achieve its quality goals. For those with strong needs for esteem, recognition can focus on the specific achievements and contributions of the team. And for those with self-actualization needs, recognition can reinforce continually striving to enhance the processes of quality.

Think of how your own needs are met at work. What does your own profile look like and how do you meet those needs while delivering on company values?

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