Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in the Workplace

Maslow’s pyramid of human needs, proposed in 1943, has been one of the most cognitively contagious ideas in the behavioral sciences. Anticipating later evolutionary views of human motivation and cognition, Maslow viewed human motives as based in innate and universal predispositions. We revisit the idea of a motivational hierarchy in light of theoretical developments at the interface of evolutionary biology, anthropology, and psychology. After considering motives at three different levels of analysis, we argue that the basic foundational structure of the pyramid is worth preserving, but that it should be buttressed with a few architectural extensions. By adding a contemporary design feature, connections between fundamental motives and immediate situational threats and opportunities should be highlighted. By incorporating a classical element, these connections can be strengthened by anchoring the hierarchy of human motives more firmly in the bedrock of modern evolutionary theory. We propose a renovated hierarchy of fundamental motives that serves as both an integrative framework and a generative foundation for future empirical research.

Almost 70 years have passed since Abraham Maslow’s classic 1943 Psychological Review paper proposing a hierarchical approach to human motivation. Maslow’s model had an immense influence on the field of psychology, including the subfields of personality, social psychology, psychopathology, developmental psychology, and organizational behavior, and it continues to be cited widely in textbooks (e.g., Kreitner & Kinicki, 2008; Myers, 2009; Nairne, 2003). Indeed, the powerful visual of a pyramid of needs (see ) has been one of the most cognitively contagious ideas in the behavioral sciences.

Unfortunately, many behavioral scientists view Maslow’s pyramid as a quaint visual artifact without much contemporary theoretical importance. We suggest, on the contrary, that the idea can take on a new significance when combined with later theoretical developments. In this article, we revisit the idea of a hierarchical approach to human motivation, suggesting some renovations to Maslow’s approach. This revised model not only provides useful connections to current innovations in psychology (e.g., evolutionary and positive psychology) but also raises a number of broader empirical questions for future research.

The implications of this three-level analysis are significant. Among other things, considerations at the functional level of analysis suggest that, although self-actualization may be of considerable psychological importance, it is unlikely to be a functionally distinct human need. Consequently, we have removed self-actualization from its privileged place atop the pyramid and suggest that it is largely subsumed within status (esteem) and mating-related motives in the new framework. Consideration of the developmental level of analysis led us to draw on the biological framework of life-history theory. Following this perspective, the top of the pyramid includes three types of reproductive goals: mate acquisition, mate retention, and parenting. And consideration of a proximate level of analysis along with life-history theory led us to change the way in which the goals are depicted in the pyramid: Rather than depicting the goals as stacked on top of one another, we instead depict them as overlapping (see ). This change explicitly reflects the assumption that early developing motives are unlikely to be fully replaced by later goals but instead continue to be important throughout life, depending on individual differences and proximate ecological cues.

We end by discussing some of the broader questions raised by these renovations and their implications for the humanistic elements underlying Maslow’s approach to human motivation. Modern evolutionary theory and research provides a new perspective on two key features of the traditional humanistic approach. First, it is now clear that human beings indeed have an array of diverse motivational systems not well represented by invoking only a few general motives shared with laboratory rats. Second, evolutionary logic is perfectly compatible with a humanistic emphasis on positive psychology. Indeed, a fuller understanding of evolved motivational systems—and their dynamic connection to environmental opportunities—can be used to enhance human creativity, productivity, kindness, and happiness.

Why Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs Matters

The 5 levels of Maslow’s needs

When applying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in the workplace, you need to understand the needs and how they impact motivation. Each need builds on the last, allowing a person to feel more fulfilled, which in turn encourages motivation and creative thinking.

1. Physiological needs

The physiological needs in this hierarchy refer to the most basic human needs. Employees need access to vital services and opportunities while at work to feel their most basic needs are being met. You need access to a restroom, a place to get drinking water, breaks to eat meals and snacks, and a comfortable working environment. When applied to the workplace, one of your physiological needs is also a steady income to support yourself and pay for somewhere to live, food, utilities and other essential needs.

2. Safety

Safety is another vital need that can impact your overall satisfaction with your workplace. It is natural to worry about your own safety and the safety of your loved ones. For example, one of your priorities might be to provide a safe living space for your family, which is why you work hard to provide for that need. At work, it’s also important to feel that your physical safety is valued and prioritized.

You should feel that your resources and personal property are safe and protected. Ensuring a safe workplace may include providing ergonomic office furniture that properly supports you and reduces the risk of injury, along with securing the building to prevent potentially dangerous people from entering.

Another aspect of safety in the workplace pertains to feeling emotionally safe and supported. If you’re worried about losing your job due to layoffs or budget cuts, it is more challenging to achieve motivation to move to the next level in the hierarchy and perform at your highest level. Unsteady futures also lead to decreased morale in the workplace.

3. Love and belonging

The love and belonging level of Maslow’s hierarchy is slightly different in the workplace than it is in other areas of your life. If you don’t feel a sense of belonging, you may not feel as engaged at work or as motivated to succeed.

4. Esteem

An employee’s esteem ultimately impacts their overall engagement as well. Offering regular recognition and appreciation for the tasks employees are doing can positively impact esteem, even when an employee is struggling. If feedback only comes in the form of an annual review, employee esteem may suffer.

5. Self-actualization

The final level on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is self-actualization, which translates to maximizing an individual’s potential at work. A person ultimately wants to feel they are doing the best they can in their position, which helps them feel motivated to continue on their career path and succeed. A self-actualized employee feels empowered and trusted, which encourages growth and engagement.

One of the keys to making sure this need is met is giving employees opportunities that allow them to succeed. Supervisors should focus on their employees’ skills and abilities, helping them look for ways to advance their careers without pushing them into roles that will not be good fits. To feel self-actualized, you should feel challenged at work but not overwhelmed or overloaded.

What is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology. This hierarchy—also referred to as Maslow’s theory of motivation—includes five levels of human needs: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization.

Within each level are specific needs that allow for an individual to feel fulfilled. The hierarchy is often depicted as a pyramid to represent the need to fulfill the lower levels before an individual can move up to the next level. Without fulfillment on the level below in the hierarchy, a person cannot progress because they will lack the motivation to do so.

Implementing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

As you apply Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in your professional life, you may find areas that could improve. An employer can provide ways to fulfill many of these needs, but you also need to be aware of how your needs impact your overall success in certain roles. For example, if you struggle with rejection, a career in sales could make it more challenging to meet your needs.

Top of the hierarchy

To reach the top level of this motivational theory in the workplace, you must be self-actualized, which means you understand your skills, abilities and what you’re capable of handling. A healthy and engaged workforce is filled with individuals who have reached the top level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The ability to identify your needs and make sure those needs are fulfilled positively can help you increase your chances of success. When you feel safe, supported, a sense of belonging and self-actualized, your attitude may also influence those around you in the workplace. Engagement and motivation are often team-based attitudes, so a team of individuals who feel their needs are being met can create a more positive, engaging culture within the workplace.

Motivation and job satisfaction

Employers with low engagement rates often have higher turnover rates, as well as issues with low morale and unhappy employees. By investing in the overall happiness of its employees, a business can increase satisfaction while boosting engagement and motivation, which ultimately impacts productivity.

It is important to assess whether you feel your needs are being met in your current position. Your needs are important and valuable, so keep them high on your list of priorities. You can also look for ways to make changes in your professional life and create a positive, engaging working atmosphere.

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