No two employees are alike. From attitude to work ethic to skills and abilities, all workforces are made up of individuals, each with their own unique set of values and priorities. Whether it’s money, time off, recognition, or praise, your employees have a driving force that pushes them to achieve. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to know what motivates your team.
An important first step to discover what makes your employees tick is to understand motivation itself. It’s a subject that has been studied extensively throughout time, and there are a wide variety of theories that attempt to explain why we, as humans, do the things we do. One theory that can be particularly useful in explaining employee motivation is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Described by Abraham Maslow, an American professor of psychology, in his 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation, the hierarchy of needs is typically portrayed as a five-level pyramid, starting with the most basic and fundamental needs at the bottom and the need of self-actualization at the top. According to the theory, each level of needs must be satisfied before we can move up the pyramid to the next level.
While it is most often used to describe human motivation in general, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is easily adapted to the workforce.
Level One: Physiological Needs
The first level of the hierarchy includes basic, physical needs, such as food, shelter, and clothing. Without these most fundamental necessities, it can be difficult – or nearly impossible – to focus on moving up to the higher levels.
When a worker is struggling to provide for their family or is forced to take a second job to make ends meet, they are working for their own survival. The job becomes more about the money, and not what the work contributes to the company as a whole.
Level Two: Safety Needs
The next level addresses our need to feel safe in our surroundings. This includes physical safety, such as protection from danger or illness, as well as the need for order and structure.
In the workplace, that translates to the need for job security and a non-threatening work environment. Workers who constantly fear their jobs are at risk or that the consequences for not meeting goals or making mistakes will be unnecessarily severe, aren’t working at their full potential. Their primary motivation is to do enough work to stay under the radar, and out of trouble.
This level also includes physical safety. Workers who are forced to work with inadequate safety procedures or poorly-maintained machinery will not be as productive as they could be in a healthier environment.
Level Three: Belonging Needs
In this level, the need for contact, affection, and friendship must be met. Humans are social beings and without a sense of belonging, our lives can feel unfulfilled.
Workplace relationships are just as necessary. Companies that stress the importance of camaraderie and teamwork have been shown time and time again to outperform businesses where there is less focus on employee interaction. Strong working relationships not only improve productivity, but companies that foster a “team” culture often have higher retention.
Level Four: Esteem Needs
This level is characterized by the innate desire to not only feel respect for ourselves, but to also be respected by others and to feel valued for our unique contributions to society.
Your employees want to know their hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed. For many workers, praise and recognition are often more important than financial incentives. Taking time to recognize your employees’ achievements lets them know the work they do means something and that it has an impact on the company’s overall success.
Level Five: Self-Actualization
This is the final level Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. When we achieve self-actualization, we have realized the heights of our dreams and potential. Our talents are not wasted and we feel comfortable with who we are. At this level, we have developed absolute confidence in our strengths and abilities.
This is the level every leader should hope their workforce achieves. Employees who are self-actualized are the ones who have found their calling. They are the people who know their talents are truly appreciated and wake up in the morning thinking “I get to go work,” not “I have to go to work.” These are the employees who take an active role in strategic planning and will ultimately become the future leadership of the company. Employees who have achieved this level are now more driven by giving motivation to others than receiving it themselves.
A motivated workforce is a productive workforce, and it’s your responsibility as a leader to understand what makes your team tick. When you know what drives your employees, you will be better equipped to respond to their needs and ensure they don’t lose their focus and commitment.