The benefits of employee satisfaction are well-established, so HR professionals and leaders across all industries spend a great deal of time focused on maximizing those benefits for organizational outcomes. There’s no shortage of approaches in the pursuit of results, so when it comes to employee satisfaction, the focus should be on meeting their needs in a practical order. Consider an out-of-the-box approach to spark your creativity.
Many people learn about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at some point in their lives through either school or work. The theory has had its fair share of controversy, but I’ve found value in applying the model within an organization to help create a road map of employee satisfaction. It can serve as a business maturity model to measure your company’s progress toward meeting employees’ most advanced needs.
Maslow’s theory presents five tiers of human needs for motivation: physiological, safety, social, self-esteem and self-actualization. This approach is useful for mapping out and fulfilling employee needs because it prioritizes development efforts that progressively build upon each other. In simple terms, the requirements listed lower on the hierarchy must be satisfied before HR practitioners or organizational leaders can address needs further up on the pyramid. The fundamental challenge found within this model is that as employees’ base needs are met, it becomes more difficult for employers to meet higher-level needs as they progress toward the top tier.
Nearly anyone who has spent any amount of time on the people side of business can tell you that employee motivation is complex and sometimes nonlinear. Accordingly, this model is only meant to serve as a guide to help organizations measure the level of needs their programs and initiatives are satisfying. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at each level as it could pertain to your employees’ hierarchy of needs:
1. Physiological Needs (Basic Needs)
Physiological needs traditionally represent the main physical needs for human survival. For employees, this boils down to money. Tangible financial incentives (e.g., base salaries, bonuses, etc.) are key here because they enable employees to meet needs related to food, drink, shelter, clothing, etc. An employee’s most basic need is to provide for themselves and their family, so it makes sense that it is the first (and most important) one.
The good news for employers is that this need is very easy to satisfy — but don’t forget to revisit this tier from time to time since employees will leave organizations for something as simple as a higher salary. Let’s face it: Fringe benefits are great, but you can’t buy groceries with them. In the case of employees leaving due to salary concerns, it’s not necessarily because the company did something wrong, but sometimes because the new job fulfills the employee’s most important need in a more satisfying way.
2. Safety Needs (Working Conditions)
Safety needs for employees are safe working conditions and security of employment, family and health. Many of these fall within employment and compliance laws, so they can be viewed as a checklist to help employers satisfy this necessity. Organizations can meet these needs by offering safe and stable working conditions as well as quality benefits and insurance to support and protect workers and their loved ones.
One key thing to remember is this need also includes psychological safety, which can be more difficult to satisfy than physical safety. William A. Kahn defines psychological safety as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status, or career.” Psychological safety takes time to build through mutual trust, respect and measured risk-taking. Thankfully, there are ways to build cultures of psychological safety, rather than fear.
3. Social Needs (Work Relationships)
Here, employees need to have a sense of belonging, trust and strong interpersonal relationships. The need for positive relationships goes beyond just peer-to-peer, leader-led and employer-client relationships. It includes the most important relationship between an employee and their employer. Additionally, work-life balance plays a pivotal role in work relationship satisfaction.
Leaders should encourage positive interactions between employees and teams while addressing negative exchanges in a constructive but direct way. Participating in after-work events is equally important for building camaraderie and satisfying employees’ social needs. The takeaway here is for leaders and HR pros to focus on efforts that create esprit de corps.
4. Esteem Needs (Employee Recognition)
For esteem needs, employees are concerned with achievement, the respect of others and prestige. Employee recognition in the form of job titles, status and reputation is key. Such recognition and reward build confidence in employees, which increases their engagement, satisfaction and performance.
The takeaway here is that employees want to feel like their contributions to the organization are meaningful, appreciated and recognized. The greater the employee’s contribution is found either meaningful, appreciated or recognized, the more satisfied this need becomes. The drawback is that this need is ongoing and cannot be satiated with a one-time event, so employers must find ways to sustain employee praise and admiration.
5. Self-Actualization (Employee Growth)
As employees, this is the brass ring for which we all reach. This is best described as employees feeling empowered to make autonomous decisions that have a direct impact on team or company performance. Self-actualization is considered a growth need, so employee advancement, greater professional creativity, decision-making authority and career fulfillment are critical to satisfying this need. As the highest tier of the pyramid, this need is the most challenging to fulfill, but once employees reach this level, they also unlock their full potential.
There are many ways for organizations to meet this need, including continued skill development, cross-training and challenging work. Self-actualization is deeply personal and unique to each employee, so it’s not one size fits all. Not everyone reaches self-actualization, but those who do are among the organization’s highest performers.
In summary, employees’ needs are complex, but they don’t have to be. Unlocking the workforce’s potential is a goal every organization shares. Using creative approaches can help build organizational road maps to employee satisfaction that are easy to measure and sustain.