maslowshierarchI recently read a great HBR article called , “Make Sure Your Employees’ Emotional Needs Are Met” by Susan David about Maslows “hierarchy” of needs that supports the emerging view that beneath our behaviours and perceptions are underlying primary emotions, and that these emotions are based on feeling secure in our relationships – at home, with our partners, and at work.  This is important because everything we do is in relationship to others. 

Today, Susan David says, the theory published in the early 1940’s is usually depicted as a pyramid, although Maslow didn’t use one in his original writings; it’s a textbook creation. At the bottom are physiological needs: food and water. The next levels represent safety needs, then love needs, then esteem needs. Self-actualization (personal growth and fulfillment) is at the pinnacle, suggesting that it can only be reached when the other four needs are met.

The author says that people latched onto this pyramid structure immediately. But, in doing so she says they forgot Maslow’s many notes : “We have spoken so far as if this hierarchy were a fixed order but actually it is not nearly as rigid as we may have implied,” Maslow wrote. He would probably be appalled at how we use his theory today.

Case in point, she points out that in her work as a psychologist and organizational consultant, she recently sat in on a strategy session at a global company. The managers were discussing how to better engage their employees. One senior executive suggested they focus on cash-based incentives. Why? She cited Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, explaining that salaries and benefits would provide people with food and shelter – physiological needs. Employees could then move up the pyramid to achieve career success and, eventually, a higher purpose – the feeling that their work bettered society. She felt that the organization had to get compensation right first.

It wasn’t the first time she had heard Maslow’s name in a meeting of managers. The hierarchy has become something of an unquestioned “fact”.  It’s cited in HR manuals, business class syllabi, and leadership presentations. People use it to push the idea that the basics – like a fair salary or a safe work environment – are the employee engagement tools that matter most. But here’s the problem she points out:  the pyramid version of Maslow’s theory doesn’t usually apply to the world of professional work.

In today’s developed-world workplace, physiological and safety needs are, for the most part, already met. Salary and benefits can enhance motivation, but organizations shouldn’t focus on them disproportionately because emotional experiences can matter equally, if not more.

Further, she cites  a recent study of outstandingly engaged business units, where she asked people what drove their high engagement scores. Only 4% of respondents mentioned pay. Instead, they highlighted feeling autonomous and empowered, and a sense of belonging on their teams.  We all know people who trade high salaries and even safety for love, esteem,and self-actualization at work – the accountants who become high school teachers, or the journalists who move to war zones with pennies in their pockets.

The reality is, David says, that human needs can’t be neatly arranged into a pyramid. Motivation isn’t simple, and it’s certainly not linear. Different people are motivated by different things. Even Maslow began to worry about the uses of his theory at the end of his life, arguing that the most important way to achieve personal satisfaction was to face one’s inner demons. He entered psychoanalysis himself at age 61 to deal with long-repressed anger.

In terms of adult attachment and neuroscience research we know that our physiological and emotional sense of safety and security are affected by our relationships.  If we have a secure bond and “safe haven” in a personal or work relationship, that drives our expression of either secure or insecure behaviours.  Our outward behaviours and perceptions are driven by deeper primary emotions, usually an attachment need or fear such as fear of loss of control, fear of abandonment.  So the sense of physiological safety and security at the “bottom rung” are often met by providing people with a safe haven, and secure interpersonal relationships.  We now know through this body of research, that meeting employees work relationships needs for a safe haven, and secure connections can engage them much further than compensation.