What Can Leaders Learn From Abraham Maslow?

We live in a world where unemployment rates are at its highest (thinking of Europe) and number of people are having troubles finding work. And then there are those of us who have a good job and wake up every morning to yet another day in the office. One would say that we should be happy but very often I hear people complaining that there is a thing or two they don’t like and some of the statistics I read make me wonder about what we expect from a job. For example this survey by Jobvite discovered that 69% of American employees are actively seeking or are open to new job opportunities. Why is that? And if you are a leader how do you fight the desire of your team to look elsewhere? To understand it we need to answer one basic question: Why do we work?

To survive

70 years ago Abraham Maslow (American psychologist) came up with a famous Maslow’s pyramid of human needs. It was an attempt to list the basic human needs and how they evolve as one gets the lower level satisfied. Even though it rather simplifies his theories and many, including Geert Hofstede, pointed out that it can vary across cultures and there is no need to satisfy lower level to get to the next one, it is a good guideline for answering our question. The very basic reason for people to seek a job is to be able to survive (the first two levels of Maslow’s pyramid related to psychological and safety needs). We all need to eat, we all need a place to rest, and we all want to be able to provide for our families. And that means money.

What does this mean for you as a leader? You need to ensure that you pay your team fairly. That doesn’t necessarily mean paying the top salary. It just means that you should pay more or less what their value for the company is. That is rather impossible to measure so a good substitute is to pay people what their value on the job market is. If you pay significantly less, they will feel like you don’t treat them fairly and you are trying to rob them. If you overpay them there is a danger that you will create a culture of entitlement, where your employees will feel they are above everyone else and will start acting like divas. Chances are they will stick with you only because of money and not because they love the work. It will negatively impact their dedication and performance and sooner or later someone desperate comes and will be willing to overpay them even more and they will jump the ship.

To belong and be appreciated

Once we satisfy our basic needs we start looking for more. Everyone wants to be appreciated (the next two levels of Maslow’s pyramid related to belonging and esteem). We may earn good income but if the environment is toxic, and there is no culture of being appreciated by others, we will still feel down.

You as a leader can deal with this easily. Always be on the floor with your team. Always provide feedback and encouragement. Recognize everyone for the work they are doing, praise, smile, and give credit where credit is due.

Hand in hand with this goes our desire to be treated like adults. Most of us crave opportunity to show we can do the job, we want to be taken seriously and we want to be able to contribute to the best of our abilities. Too many companies today still treat their employees like small children. Too many managers are afraid to give more responsibility to the team members, to trust them, to empower them. As a result employees feel powerless and not appreciated for what they can do.

To be useful

Even the most introverted of us live in some community and care about others. Once you have your needs covered you start thinking about others. You want to feel useful, you want to help others who are less fortunate and by doing it you will feel good about yourself.

What does it mean for a leader who wants to retain its people? It is all about team. Make sure that people care about the rest of the team and they genuinely try to help. Team work is not a competition about who gets promoted first. It is about people doing what they love, and having the mindset to build something together. You should always encourage open communication, team work, sharing credit between team members, and appreciate and reward success of the team.

To achieve

This may go with the top of Maslow’s pyramid where he talks about self-actualization. It may differ between cultures but the common underlying principle is “purpose”. Once we get to the top of the pyramid we need to have higher purpose in our life. Call it self-actualization, self-fulfillment or just going beyond your limits. It means we want to be more than we are. We want to step out of the confines of our current limited bodies and achieve something bigger than life.

This one is the most tricky but also the one that can glue the employee to the company for a really long time if you are successful. You need to provide a vision that the employee can identify with. This is the reason why it is so important to have company’s vision and mission. And it needs to be something that resonates with people on this highest level: purpose in life. If the vision of your company is to earn ten millions dollars this year it will not work. If the vision is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (Google), “to be our customers’ favorite place and way to eat” (McDonald’s), or “to connect people with their world, everywhere they live and work, and do it better than anyone else” (AT&T) it is something people can identify with and live for. By doing this you are giving them a deep sense of purpose. This is why so many people work in non-profit and humanitarian organizations. The pay may not be great but the sense of purpose is what makes the work so satisfactory.

So what does all this mean for you as a leader? Never focus just on one particular need. If you want to build strong organization that will be able to attract and retain the best people you need to address all the levels of the Maslow’s pyramid regardless if you believe in it or not.


Why do you work? What would the headhunter offer you to jump the ship? What would have to change in your workplace so you would stay?

Photo: © Rawpixel / Dollar Photo Club

Categories: Leadership

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