What would Maslow have to say about employee engagement? Would he say self-actualization is a noble but unattainable pipe dream?  Or would he reconstitute his hierarchy to apply to engagement so that the bottom of the pyramid might represent survival while the top might be purpose?

I’ve written about employee engagement before and believe Daniel Pink is correct when he asserts that engagement comes from purpose, autonomy and, mastery.  If we take some liberties with Maslow’s hierarchy and extend the concept to Employee Engagement the Hierarchy might look like this:

  1. Survival – At the bottom of the hierarchy, is survival. When an employee meets these needs, they can pay the rent and buy food and clothing. Engagement is low even if performance is satisfactory.
  2. Valuable – Achieving survival may be a temporary state. So the next level in the hierarchy occurs if your employer values your work.  In this case, your survival may be extended and is more secure – survival risks decrease.
  3. Interesting – The next step is if the employee finds the work interesting. Not necessarily fulfilling, but interesting enough to want to (a) do a good job and (b) learn more. Then interest creates a self-powered positive feedback loop which propels employee engagement.
  4. Professional Growth – Getting close to the top, a growth role means that the current job opens up a pathway to future jobs. Just because one’s contribution is valuable doesn’t necessarily mean that it will stay valuable nor does an interesting job necessarily remain interesting.  People actively seek ways to change and grow (either within your company or outside it).
  5. Purpose – Finally, much as Maslow talked about self-actualization, Pink wrote about purpose. Purpose takes the self-powered positive feedback loop and makes it self-sustaining. For example, Mother Teresa felt a calling to help others.  That purpose and her mission sustained her through what many of us would consider to be terrible conditions.

Unfortunately, employees make all sorts of trade-offs in this hierarchy.  There are millions of people in jobs that meet survival needs and are valuable to their employers but which are mind-numbingly boring. Misalignment like this is a recipe for disengagement.  Why should we care?  Because by Gallup’s estimate, disengagement results in lost productivity between $450-550 Billion each year (in the US alone).

The pivot point is that engaged employees serve their customers and companies better by achieving higher profit levels.  Besides the financial benefit, helping people achieve higher levels along the hierarchy is noble. When I think about it, my best managers over the years have been the ones who have encouraged and supported me as I climbed the hierarchy towards my purpose.

How are you helping people climb the pyramid to purpose?

Maslow’s Hierarchy and Employee Engagement
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