Revisiting Maslows Hierarchy. How does it apply to the Workplace?


Maslow’s hierarchy¬†of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Maslow subsequently extended the idea to include observations about people’s innate curiosity and not just what motivates them. His theories parallel many other theories of psychology which focus on describing stages in human development. Maslow uses the terms Physiological, Safety, Love and Belonging, Esteem, and Self-Actualization to describe the general stages that human motivations move through.

While Maslow’s hierarchy was a general theory towards the needs of a man, its principles can be easily adapted to our workplaces. Corporations around the world are trying to come up with all kinds of innovative programmes to identify what employees want and what makes staff happy, contented and want to work for the organisation. At the end of the day all these programmes are all geared towards meeting human needs and wants, all of which have been beautifully summarised by Maslow in his theory.

Maslows hierarchy when applied to the workplace can be described as below

Physiological Needs

This is the most basic level of needs that every employee expects from their employers. These needs are almost taken for granted and are often a part of local employment laws. These would include things like a comfortable work environment to work in, availability of the tools required to perform the work, minimum amenities required as part of the work infrastructure, etc. The presence of these do not make any difference to employee morale or motivation. However the absence of these can lead to serious impact on morale and could even lead to legal consequences for the organisation. For example a physiological need would be a reasonable and comfortable desk and chair with basic sanitation. It could also mean providing for special equipment and work environments for physically challenged employees or people with disabiliti

Safety Needs

The second level in the hierarchy is safety needs. Safety needs at the workplace include the safety aspects of the workplace including the physical and non physical aspects. For example if your work is an engineering company where you are expected to walk to shop floor, you would expect that the company takes care of the essential health and safety requirements. Once again, most countries have laws around these and organisations have to abide by these laws and implement the necessary measures. Besides physical safety needs, employees also need to feel assured that the company has the required policies and procedures to protect their interests. For example the availability of defined holiday policies, performance policies, termination procedures, etc. The idea behind this need is that the employees feel safe that the employer will not indiscriminately take actions based on the whims and fancies of individual opinions. The employees also need to know that they will be paid by the employer as per the agreed terms and conditions.

Social Needs

Most organisations meet the first 2 levels of needs as they are driven largely by regulations and local employment laws. Level 3 and above is where you will start seeing differences in how organisation compare. Man is a social animal and we were born to be part of a community. This is the level where the needs of each employee starts to differ and is often challenging to address through a policy or training. These needs have to met through the culture of the organisation and driven by the management of the organisation. As humans we constantly seek to be a part of a group and very often define ourselves through our associations. For example when asked to introduce ourselves, we will often respond by stating the company we work for, the social organisation we are a part of, the college we attended, etc. What we are trying to do is define ourselves through our associations. While one could argue that this is a very shallow way of defining ourselves, the fact is that whether we like it not, we have defined it ourselves. So at this level employees want to be accepted as part of a team and be seen as a part of a winning team. We spend much of our day at work spending time with our colleagues at work. We expect to have good relationships with people we work with, which we find nourishes us and often helps our self confidence and self esteem. Organisations should strive to provide their employees with an environment where people can connect and feel part of the family.

Esteem Needs

The penultimate level is where it starts getting more personal and the needs of each individual has a slightly different flavour. At this level employees are seeking for opportunities to advance, having a feeling of achievement, status and responsibility. This is the level when employees want to be involved in exciting projects, want recognition for their work, seek out more responsibility and want to have a certain status within the organisation. This is the reason why you often see employees being sensitive about job titles as this denotes their status in the organisation and society. Most successful organisations today work at addressing employee needs upto this level and have been quite successful at keeping employees motivated through various incentives and employee recognition programmes.

Self Actualization

This is the highest level of needs in an employee. This is often when money has stopped being the primary motivational factor for the employee and he is often seeking a “higher purpose” in his job. As a matter of fact its’s not just a “job” for the employee and the employee often finds it very difficult to disassociate himself from his job when defining himself. This is when you will words like Job Fulfillment, Value addition, etc. This stage is usually reached once employees have spent a few years at their jobs but it does not always have to be the case. I have seen some very young professionals who demonstrate this level of awareness in their work. Employees want to seeing as “making a difference” and finding “meaning” in their work. One thing you will often see is that high performers often are at this level and they get very uncomfortable the moment they feel their work is not fulfilling them. This is a level very few organisations have been able to address well. This is perfectly understandable as these needs are very spiritual in nature and very specific to each individual.

While the hierarchy is a pyramid structure, it does not mean that employees go through each step with passing time. On the contrary all of these needs interplay with each other and some needs are more predominant in a few compared to others. Organisations are and will constantly be battling to meet needs of the employees. What is required is a holistic, human and personal approach to the needs.

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Hi. I’m Vipin Ramdas. I’m an Author, Speaker, Writer, Blogger, Father, Husband, Manager and a lot more. I’m fascinated by anything around Personal Development and Spirituality. I also love technology and get a great deal of satisfaction in simplifying complex ideas/concepts.