Abraham Maslow’s well-known and highly respected Hierarchy of Needs theory describes five level of needs. What does Maslow’s theory have to do with leadership?
If we don’t understand peoples’ needs, we don’t understand people. Let’s look at the needs beginning with the basic needs:
- Physiological needs – basic needs of air, food, water, shelter, sex, and relief and/or avoidance of pain.
- Safety needs – after the basic needs are met, safety and security must be met.
- Belongingness or Social needs – after safety needs are met, we want to feel connections with people.
- Esteem needs – after social needs are met, we desire self-respect, status, and recognition for our accomplishments.
- Self-Actualization needs – the highest level of needs is the development of our full potential. To achieve this sense of fulfillment, we seek to understand and grow, to find meaning in our work and our lives.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is based on three assumptions:
(1) only unmet needs motivate,
(2) needs are hierarchical in nature, basic to complex, and
(3) lower level needs must be met before moving to a higher-order need.
We can see how the first two tiers, our basic and safety needs are met, just by having a job and a paycheck. The pay affords us the ability to meet our basic and safety-level needs.
The third tier, belongingness and/or social needs, are the connections with others we crave. Often, after a certain period of time on the new job, we seek relationships with those with whom we work. Going to lunch, taking coffee breaks with each other, or perhaps a cocktail after work are all ways in which we fill these belongingness needs. It is not unusual for someone to say they “hate the job, but love the people they work with”. This is an important sign for leaders to notice. As soon as those employees get their social needs met outside of work…they are gone!
Our esteem needs are when we seek outside approval from others. We want to know we are valued and appreciated. Employees always remember leaders who are good at this. We often remember how we felt when someone said something to or about us, rather than the specific words uttered by the person. How we felt about those statements or actions, has a much longer duration and more deeply affects us than the actual words. I remember while growing up I often heard my mother repeating one of her favorite mantras, “Actions speak louder than words.” How true mom, how very true! This is often the place that we lose “good people” at work, because they don’t feel valued and honored.
The highest level of needs Maslow presented was the need for self-actualization. This is where we seek, with a ferocious hunger to find meaning and purpose in what we do. OK, we may start a new job and begin the quest of the hierarchical pyramid all over again, but we will eventually be right back to this higher order of need. Meeting this need is the fulfillment of meaning. People leave organizations when they reach this need level because their work is not a conduit to their meaning-seeking behavior and need.
As always, I love to hear from you. What level are you at currently? What is one immediate action you can take today, based on this knowledge?