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Employee Motivation Theories: Maslow's Hierarchy at Work

maslow's hierarchy of needs
image credit simplypsychology.org

Why do we hope for and work towards promotions? Why do we want to gain respect from leadership and get along with our colleagues? The simple answer to these questions is to earn more money. Gaining confidence and having friends at a place you spend much of your time is always a plus. These aspects of an "ideal workplace" seem basic, yet people are driven to other companies or work for that promotion for deeper reasons. This need to “progress” is as deep-seated as the drive to survive. In this blog, we look at employee motivation theories and how applying Maslow's Hierarchy to work gives us insight into how to address employee turnover.

Maslow's Hierarchy at Work

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, our need for food, water, sleep, safety, and security drives us for survival. In our modern civilization, humans satisfy these needs through work for pay or providing a service or goods.
When do we consider our needs met? Through modernization and consumerism, this range has become broad. Yes, food is essential. But one person may accept a hamburger as satisfying the need for food, where another may consider a steak dinner the minimum requirement. What we can all accept is that for the vast majority of Western civilization, we are no longer just scraping by, trying to survive. The hamburger or steak doesn't matter, as we don't have to hunt anymore. Most of us are beyond the level of survival and are ready to pursue loftier goals with our time. Let's look at employee motivation theories with Maslow's thinking in mind.

Employee motivation theories

Work is not for survival only

As we ascend this hierarchy, it is apparent that humans strive for more than survival. Once those basic needs are met, we are driven to pursue our psychological needs and self-fulfillment. These categories are beyond basic survival, but the vast majority of us still pursue these goals. And because as a species, we spend more and more of our time at work, this is the obvious avenue to develop and grow. We look to our career paths to accomplish those objectives.
If one is so lucky to gain employment out of school and maintain the same role, with the same pay, at the same company, and feel that their basic needs are met, along with fulfilling their psychological needs and self-fulfillment needs, I applaud you. There are not many in the world that would feel they have truly satisfied Maslow’s hierarchical levels without adjustment at some point in their career.
Straight out of college, many students are satisfied with landing their first entry-level position. Graduates want to get their foot in the door and will accept lower pay for a while. Half aren't even in jobs related to what they got their degrees in. Recent grads may not have financial support from family and they’re now in charge of fulfilling their own basic needs for survival. According to Maslow, one must satisfy the lower levels of the hierarchy before attempting to achieve higher levels. So, someone at an entry-level position just needs to ensure they have food on the table and a roof over their heads before they reach for more.

Maslow and corporate culture

Throughout an entry-level job, a person will seek to enhance relationships with co-workers and even become friends. The feeling of “belongingness and love,” is the first level of our psychological needs. People like to be liked. You may fulfill this level of Maslow’s Hierarchy with a simple gesture of a friendly co-worker saying, “good morning.” Or, you may desire true friendship at work. Again, there are different levels of satisfaction that varies from one person to the next.
This is why corporate culture is so important to employee motivation theories. Feeling disliked or disrespected will drive employees out the door. They will leave and find an environment that has a friendlier culture and feels accepting. This is a common reason people decide to leave a position that has no relation with the actual work they’re doing. They might even like the work they do. But the culture, the management, or their coworkers make meeting this need impossible.
Remember that we spend 8 hours a day at work. Add commute time to that, and we might be away from family and friends 10-11 hours a day. The human need for connection and acceptance does not end when we pull out of our driveways and head to work. As a society, we have evolved beyond leading lives of quiet desperation. No one is going to "suck it up" for long just to get a paycheck. Companies would do well to keep their employees feeling welcome, included, and embraced at work. We spend too many hours away from home for employers to ignore this aspect of human nature. Nurture it or expect expensive turnover.

It costs nothing to give out gold stars

Esteem is another psychological need that comes into employee motivation theories. It describes the feeling of accomplishment. When applying this need in relation to work, you’ll find another major reason for turnover within an organization. You may have heard that Millennials "need validation" in everything they do. At some level, we all need to feel accomplishment in some aspect of our job. In my days working on the employer relations side of Human Resources, I witnessed during several exit interviews that resignations resulted from a lack of recognition from management. It’s sad to know that resignations from great workers could have been avoided, if their manager said, “good job,” occasionally. It is important for companies with high turnover to assess management and leadership. I support the assessment that good workers leave managers and not companies.
Which would you rather have, a jaded employee that doesn't give a crap anymore if they do a good job (because the boss never says anything anyway) or someone that wants to knock it out of the park every day for their boss?

Are you giving your top-tier employees creative control?

Maslow's Hierarchy points to self-actualization becoming the reason to move on to greener pastures. My definition of self-fulfillment is living your best life and being the best version of you that you can be. Self-actualization may be an infinite level that always grows.
In the context of employee motivation theories, employers should consider how they can help employees meet this need, in order to retain top-tier talent. Give them creative control. If your employees prove themselves competent, creative problem solvers, and diligent workers, give them additional latitude. I excelled in the field of HR, but I realized I can shine in other roles. And I've sought out employers that will help me grow my skills and challenge my abilities. Find out from your employees what goals they have set for themselves and create mentoring relationships for employees. At pepelwerk, we have career coaches to help out Talent members to reach their full potential.
Don't thwart your top employees' promotions or department moves because "they are so valuable where they are." If they've reached their peak state in their current position, you hold them there at your own detriment. Keep Maslow's Hierarchy in mind, especially during annual review season, and consider these employee motivation theories. Help foster a culture that promotes your most valued employees. If your best employees stagnate, they will move on.
Having drive is human nature. Don’t suppress it and don’t settle. That drive exists because possibilities are endless. You can either find a way to embrace it or watch your Talent find it elsewhere. We hope you found these employee motivation theories useful. It really is vital to stay in tune with the key things that drive and motivate your staff.
Amanda Imperial
Boss of Projects & Process at Pepelwerk

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