You may have heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs a few times throughout your adult life, most likely at college, but did you know that it’s one of the most important management theories you can learn?

Maslow’s theory examines what motivates individuals, and as a team leader, knowing the root needs that push (and pull) each of your individual members can not only help you fix underlying problems within the team, but also boost team morale and go above and beyond in terms of team productivity.

But before you can apply Maslow’s motivation theory to your own experiences, it’ll help to understand Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs down to the most basic level.

Maslow’s Original Hierarchy of Needs

Former law student Abraham Maslow developed an interest in psychology and continued to pursue a bachelor’s, master’s, and a doctorate degree in the field, eventually creating the famous Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Because Maslow was extremely interested in human potential and how it is fulfilled, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was focused on maximizing well-being and achieving one’s potential, in contrast to theories before his, such as Freud’s and Skinner’s, which were more focused on the negative and pathological aspects of existence.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is modeled as a pyramid with five tiers, with each tier representing a human need. The idea is that each need, starting from the bottom, should be satisfied before focusing on the “higher needs” on the pyramid.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid
Source: Desmet & Fokkinga (2020)

This is also the reason why it is modeled as a pyramid instead of a cube or square– the needs starting from the base of the pyramid focus on basic needs for human survival.

If the model was a cube, all needs would be seen as equally important, meaning any of the other tiers would be as important as the survival aspect, which is definitely not the case!

Look at it this way: if you’re currently hungry and homeless, your top worry as of the moment can’t be about what your peers think about you!

Your survival instincts will definitely kick in at this point, pushing you to look for food and a place to stay.

Of course, in some cases, the hierarchy is not rigidly defined, meaning to say: some people can have needs that arcs over from one tier to another, depending on circumstances and individual differences.

For example, for some individuals, they need love more than self-esteem. For some, they need fulfillment in terms of their personal growth over constant social interaction and belonging.

The original version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs contains the following tiers, from bottom to top: Physiological Needs, Safety Needs, Belonging and Love Needs, Esteem Needs, and Self-actualization needs.

1. Physiological needs

As mentioned earlier, these needs are focused on human survival. Air, food, drink, sleep, shelter, clothing, warmth, and sex are examples of human biological needs that are required for us to function optimally.

When these aren’t satisfied, we cannot function to our highest ability. According to Maslow, all the other needs are secondary until these needs are met. After all, a pyramid without a proper base cannot stand tall.

2. Safety needs

Once physiological needs are consistently satisfied, the next needs on the pyramid are those concerning safety and security.

These needs usually consist of those that our family and society can provide us, such as financial security (employment and social welfare), emotional security, laws, social stability, and security in terms of health and wellbeing (safety against accidents and injury).

3. Belonging and love needs

Following security, we, as humans, will have the tendency to need a sense of belonging.

These are highly social needs, and these include needing the following: friendship, trust, intimacy, love, acceptance, and affection.

4. Esteem needs

Next on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we have the fourth tier: esteem needs. These needs revolve around respect, self-worth, and accomplishment, which Maslow has further split into two categories: esteem for oneself, and respect from others.

Examples of esteem for oneself are achievement, mastery, and independence, as these can be accomplished of your own accord and with your own criteria.

As for the second category, respect from others, it has more to do with reputation, prestige, and status within a certain group of individuals, which means it is dependent on other people’s perception of us.

5. Self-actualization needs

Finally, lying at the peak of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are the needs for self-actualization. These needs refer to the realization of our individual potentials, of personal growth and experience. Maslow simply put it as, “to become the most one can be”.

Of course these needs vary from person to person. If you’re interested in painting or crafts, your personal goals will be vastly different from someone who aims to be the best parent they can be, or for someone who aims to create a huge business empire.

You can even have a combination of these goals, depending on what you desire.

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The expanded Hierarchy of Needs

Around 16 years after its 5-tier iteration, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was expanded to include cognitive, aesthetic, and transcendence needs.

Cognitive and aesthetic needs now both lie in between esteem needs and self-actualization needs, while transcendence needs lie even beyond self-actualization needs.

Cognitive needs revolve around a need for knowledge and understanding. These needs are characterized by curiosity and exploration– a huge urge to look for meaning and predictability within the world around us.

Aesthetic needs, on the other hand, revolve around appreciating and finding beauty– which could be beauty in the self, beauty in others, beauty in the environment.

Finally, transcendence needs refer to what the individual values that transcends beyond the self– needs that relate to beliefs and experiences, such as religious, mystical, sexual, aesthetic, philosophical, etc.

Applying this to your teams

Maslow’s motivation theory is generally applied to creating a positive team climate for your individual members.

Being in a team, especially being the team leader, you should be aware of your own and your team members’ current state and needs, else, it is very likely the individual, and soon, the whole team, will feel demotivated and disengaged– maybe even ready to leave!

It’s a foundational leadership skill to acquire and develop if you want to progress in your career, and links closely to emotional intelligence, another important thing to learn.

A good example to watch out for is a physiological need: sleep. Sometimes, overtime is inevitable, and an extra amount of work has to be done to meet a deadline. These overtimes might pile up, leaving your team sleepless and maybe even looking like zombies! Beating deadlines but paying it off with your team’s sleep won’t be beneficial in the long run– the quality of their work will surely plunge after a few more instances, especially since sleep is at the base of the pyramid, which is the foundation of the rest.

Another example of Maslow’s theories in action is for being aware of an employee’s needs relating to safety and security. As an employee, you usually expect your company to keep you safe from working in extreme environments, also by giving you health benefits if they can.

Another aspect to this would be for handling psychologically ratting experiences, such as office aggressions and lay-offs. Employees and team members may also want to feel safe enough to disclose personal problems that may affect work, which means the behavior of the team and the company around them should be able to cultivate this kind of safety for their employees to be able to communicate their needs in the first place.

Love and belonging is also a strong need in the workplace. After all, this is what sets us apart from being robots.

We are human beings, so making sure that each team member you have isn’t feeling alienated or lonely will be useful in keeping everyone in top shape. This can be done by setting up team building activities and get-togethers. Sometimes doing even the simplest of activities together, such as going to lunch, or walking to another part of the office together, can help forge that camaraderie each individual member needs.

Esteem is another important need in any team. Each member must be recognized for their contributions– even the tiniest ones. The feeling of inferiority is a difficult state to work with each day, which may also lead to anger down the line. Coaching, mentoring, and finally, praising each individual can be a great help to keeping their esteem high.

Finally, there is self-actualization. There is always that dream life we all wish to have, and they may or may not be aligned with what your team can offer its individual members. It is just as important to provide steps for your team to reach their own personal goals as well, or at least try to understand how to connect the members to the “most they can be”, as these talents and aspirations can also be utilized within the team, no matter what they may be. Ignoring such goals may lead to them finding this fulfillment elsewhere, leading to distraction and maybe even resignation.

These are just examples of how important Maslow’s theories are, especially in the line of leadership and management. People are not robots or slaves, after all. They have their own motivations, their own lives, their own goals, and your job as a leader is to give them that sense that you’re guiding them down the right path.

Once they realize this, it will be natural for them to push themselves further for their own growth and, in turn, for the team’s.

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