How Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Can Fix Your Broken Company Culture

In a hospital, they call it triage: prioritizing the most urgent patients during a medical crisis. 

In the workplace, when faced with a crisis of culture, managers have to employ a kind of triage as well: addressing your team’s most critical needs first in order to earn their trust and motivation. But how do we determine which needs are the most pressing, and how do we go about meeting them? The answer lies in a classic psychological theory: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Get your free copy of our guide on how to improve your 1:1 meetings Download it now ⬇️

What Is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

In 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow published A Theory of Human Motivation, in which he introduced his now-famous hierarchy of needs, which is often depicted as a pyramid. At the bottom, Maslow placed our most basic survival needs, such as food and water, with needs becoming increasingly sophisticated as you go up, and “self-actualization” sitting at the top. 

image

Maslow believed that until a person has their most basic, bottom-of-the-pyramid needs met, they can’t progress to meeting their higher needs. A person who is constantly anxious about whether they’ll be able to afford their rent has little bandwidth to focus on fulfilling their creative potential, for example. 

Interpretations of the hierarchy have evolved to acknowledge that many needs bleed into one another and that people can temporarily put aside lower-level needs in the service of higher ones. But Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been a foundational concept in psychology management since it was introduced because it makes intuitive sense. 

A person who is constantly anxious about whether they’ll be able to afford their rent has little bandwidth to focus on fulfilling their creative potential.

If you are dropped on a desert island, you’ll naturally work your way up the checklist: first finding food and water, then shelter, then fashioning a companion out of a volleyball, etc.

Using Maslow’s Hierarchy to Repair Your Company Culture from the Bottom-Up

As a manager, when you sense that your company culture leaves employees feeling unfulfilled, checked out, or anxious, it’s your job to step in and offer support. When faced with cultural problems, it’s helpful to think of Maslow’s pyramid as a triage system to help you sort through and address problems in order of urgency.

Basic Needs

Physiological and safety needs come first for everyone. Hopefully, your employees are physically safe in the most basic sense and not dodging exposed wires to get to their desks, but that doesn’t mean that a dysfunctional work environment doesn’t endanger their health and well-being. As we’ve written before, employee burnout is linked to poor health outcomes; according to a Gallup study, burned-out employees are 23% more likely to visit the emergency room than their peers.

Burned-out employees are 23% more likely to visit the emergency room than their peers.

Source: Gallup

If your team works themselves into the ground or often puts in overtime and weekend hours, institute policies to protect them from the harmful effects of burnout. Establish hours during which employees are discouraged from replying to emails. Encourage team members to take breaks during the day. 

Meeting your team’s safety needs includes their psychological safety, which you can do by being consistent, stable, and transparent in your management choices. Nothing makes employees feel less safe than an unpredictable work environment, where they fear being fired or disciplined on a whim, and in which they’re unclear of their own responsibilities. Institute and publish clear guidelines on how you will issue critical feedback, define what constitutes a fireable offense, and meet with team members individually to clarify your expectations from their role.

Again, these are the needs you should address first. Once your team isn’t anxious about the stability of their position, it will free up enough emotional bandwidth for them to truly focus on their work.

Psychological Needs

One-on-one meetings are your most powerful tool to start meeting your team’s higher-level needs. If you don’t already conduct regular, intimate conversations with your team, or if you’re using that time as just another chance for granular status updates, you’re missing a crucial chance to support them.

For one thing, the intimate structure of one-on-ones allows you to establish genuine personal connections with your reports to give them that feeling of belonging. For another, one-on-ones allow you to set priorities for team members to focus on between meetings and then celebrate those accomplishments when they’re completed. When an employee has a win to celebrate, no matter how small, and when that progress is noticed by their manager, it fulfills esteem needs. 

Outside of one-on-ones, remember to “praise in public” and encourage team members to praise one another’s work. Build in opportunities during onboarding for team members to talk about their passions outside of work. Encourage your team to bond over common interests, either through a non-work related messaging channel or a designated chat area. Discourage gossip and never, ever ask employees to report on one another’s behavior.

Remember to “praise in public” and encourage team members to praise one another’s work.

Self-fulfillment

When you’ve created an environment where your team members feel connected to their peers, supported by their manager, and valued for their work, they can unlock the part of their brain that wants to be not just productive, but inspired.

Again, one-on-one meetings are the ideal setting to learn what self-actualization looks like for each employee. Start by asking employees about their long-term career goals. Determine if there’s a type of work they want to try that dovetails with their interests. Let them pitch out-of-the-box ideas in a judgement-free zone. Design your one-on-ones so that you return to these high-level goals every few months, so your employees never feel stagnant in their roles. 

When you’ve created an environment where your team members feel connected to their peers, supported by their manager, and valued for their work, they can unlock the part of their brain that wants to be not just productive, but inspired.

A Checklist for a Healthy Workplace

People have the same needs at work as they do in every other area of their lives, and a healthy workplace meets each one of those needs. Here’s a checklist for managers to determine if your organization is satisfying every level of the hierarchy or if crucial needs are going unmet.

Physiological Needs

  • Are your employees comfortable in the space? Is the space itself chaotic and shabby or organized and inviting? Can employees dress comfortably and work with their preferred modifications (headphones, standing desks, etc.)?
  • Are your employees well-fed? Is the break room stocked with healthy snacks? Do employees have sufficient time to eat lunch?
  • Are team members maintaining healthy stress levels? Are people burning out, not sleeping, or drinking too much due to overwork? Do team members have opportunities for exercise, movement, or rest throughout the day?

Safety Needs

  • Does your team have job security? Are employees often fired without warning?
  • Are team members being paid salaries commensurate with industry norms and with their efforts? Are paychecks always on time?
  • Are your reports psychologically safe, comfortable bringing their whole personalities to work, and speaking out when needed? Are team members chastised publicly for mistakes?
  • Are they morally safe, doing work that supports, rather than compromises, their values?

Love and Belonging

  • Are your team members close to one another? Are there avenues of communication for people to joke and talk about non-work interests?
  • Do employees gossip about one another? Do they celebrate one another’s achievements?
  • Do your reports express candid thoughts and feelings to you? Do they share personal issues when they arise?

Esteem

  • Is there a system in place to publicly recognize and praise achievements? For example, do you set aside time in group meetings to call out individual successes? 
  • Do you record praise in a way that can be reflected in performance reviews?
  • Do employees have achievable, incremental goals and benchmarks they can count as “wins?”

Self-Actualization

  • Are people challenged at work and given opportunities to creatively problem-solve? Are team members allowed to work independently, or are they subject to constant oversight?
  • Do team members get to vary their work from day-to-day, or are they stuck completing rote tasks?
  • Are your reports growing in their roles in order to take on new skill sets? Do reports have a clear path toward career advancement?

A Blueprint for a Healthier Company Culture

To paraphrase Tolstoy’s famous quote about families: All happy workplaces are the same, but each unhappy workplace is unhappy in its own way. 

There are infinite varieties of dysfunctional workplace cultures, and each requires its own specific set of remedies. But when you start from a vision of what a happy workplace looks like—one in which employee needs are being met at every level of the hierarchy—you can see the path forward to righting the ship.

Scroll to Top