The Focal Point Blog // Business Strategy // Dave Annis // May 5, 2022

Team Leadership Through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Digital services firms, much like the people who run them, are on a continual journey.

We want our companies and our teams to be the best version of themselves and to grow and evolve over time. We want to motivate our people to reach their full potential and for our teams to achieve results. Getting there certainly requires a focus on the needs of the business, but also the fundamental needs of our people. One can’t grow without the other. But finding balance between these two is easier said than done.

As many leaders navigate aggressive business growth, there’s also a perceived tension that culture and people-building will suffer as growth is emphasized. Small and tight-knit teams may feel that prioritizing business growth and meeting performance goals comes at the expense of the cultures they helped create. Individual contributors may also lose sight of their own value and opportunities for development as the companies they joined early on begin to grow. Previously engaged employees may no longer feel a strong connection as companies evolve – or as they change themselves.

It’s well documented that strong and engaged teams drive business performance, so it’s important to understand what our people need in order to be their best selves and do their best work. Especially given the unprecedented amount of change and growth happening in the digital services industry. There are a lot of leadership frameworks and models out there, but my favorite is one of the classics.

Meet Maslow

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a foundational concept of Parallax’s culture and vision, and also how I shape and continue to evolve my approach to leadership, motivation, and team building. The quick version of the theory is that human needs can be broken down into five categories – from physiological needs to self actualization, and the higher needs emerge only when the more basic needs are met. And let’s be clear: Maslow’s model of how people achieve self actualization to be their best selves is about a lot more than who those people are professionally! But I think the idea is effective at helping people become their best work selves and to realize their professional potential and career ambitions. After all, we spend a lot of our lives at work and we yearn for both professional and personal fulfillment. Heck, it’s called “earning a living” for a reason. Our professional lives should mean something! Plus, I believe Maslow’s model is an effective way to think about leading, motivating, and evolving both businesses and the people who run them. Let’s break it down.

At the foundation, make sure the basics are covered

The foundational layer of Maslow’s model is about survival. People need shelter, food, and transportation for themselves and their families. And to acquire those things, they need a fair wage for their work! If people are secure in their finances, they can focus on everything else. On the other hand, if they’re distracted or worried about bills, they’re less effective. So it’s important to pay people fairly and to make sure the “contract” between employee and employer is fair and understood. This means being clear on salaries, how they’re set, and how people can earn more as they grow.

The next layer, safety, is about helping employees feel secure in their jobs. That means setting clear goals and expectations. Another baseline distraction you should help your people avoid is the fear of being “blind-sided” and fired one day out of the blue due to performance issues they weren’t aware of. Make sure individuals know what’s expected of them, and if they are meeting those expectations early and often.

These two baseline needs are often either misunderstood, miscommunicated, or not communicated at all by all leaders. But in Maslow’s model, it’s critical to get these right first so you can get to the fun part of helping people excel and thrive!

Love and belonging = culture

At the middle of Maslow’s Hierarchy is the need for belonging and connection. To me, this is about creating and nurturing a strong culture and making sure people align with the values of an organization. Make sure the values and purpose of your company are both known and reinforced. And establish ways for people and teams to feel connected to your purpose and mission. Read more about creating and nurturing strong cultures and how to drive team engagement. At the end of the day, culture and belonging is important to the human AND the business. Engaged employees will feel fulfilled, respected, and nurtured – and businesses will excel with engaged and committed teams.

Reward and recognize

The next layer is about driving esteem and meeting the need for recognition, respect, and freedom. In a professional sense, I believe this is about recognizing and rewarding people for their performance, but also helping them create real impact. During times of growth or evolution, impact is about helping people shape the future of their careers and the organization. As people move up the ladder of needs, they’ll seek recognition, but also influence. Lead and motivate teams so they understand their impact in the organization today and how they can influence the future of the firm.

Self actualization

The top of Maslow’s pyramid: a sense of being your best self and reaching your full potential. It may elicit eye rolls as academic bullsh*t jargon, but I truly believe that meeting peoples’ needs – from the most fundamental to the need for recognition – can bring out their absolute best. The peak of Maslow’s model is about helping people realize their talents, contributions, or potential – both personally and professionally. Great leaders nurture and guide people to be their best selves and help them follow their passions. But they also know that in order for people to reach this point of fulfillment, that their other needs are met – even the most fundamental ones.

How to use Maslow’s model to invest in employee engagement

The digital services field is full of growth, evolution, challenges, and change. An unintended consequence of this dynamic environment is that achieving business success can often come at the expense of focusing on personal growth and culture building for teams – or so it would seem. Organizations need to be both smart and healthy to reach to be truly successful. Smart means understanding the economics of the business: market dynamics, trends, financial performance, the competitive landscape, and more. Healthy means building a cohesive team characterized by trust, interdependence, solid relationships, and a strong culture.

Maslow’s model shows that addressing the fundamental and aspirational needs of people will create healthy, committed, and high-impact teams. Those strong teams whose needs are met, in turn, will drive business growth and help your organization reach its highest potential.

If you’re ready to invest in employee engagement, but not sure where to get started, we recommend starting with an assessment to gather meaningful feedback from employees, and to get a pulse for where your firm is currently at.