Hierarchy of Needs and Work

It was a about 5 or 6 years ago after a tough time in my life that I came to realize I hadn’t been focusing on myself as much. I had just gotten out of a serious relationship and I didn’t really know the steps I needed to take to kickstart self-development, so I started researching. I’ve always had massive interest in psychology so one of the first big breakthroughs I had was in discovering Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is essentially a motivational theory – It’s his look at what motivates people to do the things they do and why they behave the way that they behave. Basically, the theory is that we are all human, we all have certain needs and if they are not being met, it will actually motivate us to try and fulfill those needs in order to be happy. In the hierarchy, if lower level needs aren’t met people cannot meet higher level needs and being stuck in specific lower level needs can lead to stress, pain and even depression.


When we think in terms of the basic survival, I’m talking about food, water, clothing and shelter. In the workplace this translates to wages. Companies that pay their employees enough to afford these necessities comfortably will satisfy this level of basic needs. There are a few companies who excel at sufficiently satisfying their employees by advertising that they pay above whatever the minimum or average wage and salary is for positions. These companies also have significantly less turnover rates, workman’s comp cases, etc… The return on investment for this to a company is huge.

 Safety and Security

The next need is for safety. In this particular scenario we are referring to physical and job security. Violence and sexual harassment are big issues, so companies should have measures in place to minimize the risk and ideally eliminate these problems.

A majority of companies are at-will employers so for the employee it’s a lot harder to buy in or invest themselves at a particular place and the fact that opportunities can and will arise for them to grow professionally. It’s shown to be difficult for many companies to invest in employees for these same reasons. Shouldn’t the opposite be true?


Once survival and safety and security needs have been met, employees are motivated to feel a sense of belonging and love. You might call this “culture” – and an overall feeling of being a part of the company’s story. If there are signs that an employee or their work isn’t valued they won’t be motivated to do their best. There are enough culture articles to go around so I won’t really touch on this too much, but ask yourself how well you’re branding and framing your company’s culture. Are you branding it for customers only or internally as well? The need for belonging has seen tremendous growth and attention over the last decade in the workplace and it’s becoming evermore important to employees that this be met through team retreats, company activities in and outside of the office, etc… You can see examples of how a feeling of belonging is being injected into job postings, blog posts about organization transparency, marketing and advertisements. A recent post on DesignerNews suggests overwhelmingly that this is one of the most important decisions that is made when considering working for someone.

 Self-Esteem & Ego

Once the lower-level needs are taken care of it’s all about the self-esteem and ego – feeling a sense of value and self-worth. Companies must strive to commend and recognize employees to meet these needs verbally, with compensation, awards, perks, etc… Research has shown when people seek out a profession they are looking to gain recognition and seek out fame, or glory from their peers and colleagues in some fashion. The higher version of this need is self-respect and manifests itself as the need for strength, competence, mastery, confidence, independence, and freedom. The higher version takes precedence over the instant gratification of acceptance and recognition. At this level, failing to meet these needs could lead to inferiority complexes, or feelings of weakness or helplessness. This can directly affect not just the quality of that employees work, but the overall quality of their life.


The last and highest level need is self-actualization – what an employee’s full potential is and the realization of that potential. Does the employee know the impact their contributions are making for the company in others’ lives? I think so many companies fail at conveying this. They fail to connect their customers and their employees in little ways more than complaints or requests. Balance is key in satisfying the self-actualization needs of employees – knowing that they are making a difference with the work they are doing and that they are contributing something positive and useful to the world.

The needs that are below self-actualization are referred to as coping needs because they are tied with instant gratification and aren’t very long lasting. If you are hungry, you eat, and that need is satisfied for the time being. And you are happy. Satisfaction from work could come from a small compliment or recognition on a project someone has spent time on. It satisfies for as long as that’s relevant but as soon as you enter a new scenario or finish working on another project, you’ll find that most employees will seek that same level or more recognition. The higher level needs like self-actualization are more long lasting and are the needs that actually make someone happy in their role and work they are doing at a company. These many not be as intense as the instant gratification from receiving a compliment from someone but it brings you the kind of pleasure that really contributes to your overall happiness.

I’ve worked for companies that have helped satisfy my hierarchy of needs and companies that completely miss the mark when it comes to this. Are your needs being met professionally? What motivates you? Are you endeavoring to satisfy the needs of your employees? What are you doing to remedy if you aren’t? Let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear your feedback.


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