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

Improving Employee Engagement: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

While it’s critical for leaders of digital services to focus on business growth, they must also address the fundamental needs of their employees. This is the only proven method for improving employee engagement.

In this guide, we explain how leaders can do it all by harnessing the power of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We cover the five categories of Maslow’s model, including physiological needs, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

We also discuss how each of these categories can be applied to create a strong culture, drive team engagement, and recognize employee performance.

Here are five key takeaways from the article:

  1. To motivate your team to reach their full potential, it’s crucial to focus on the needs of your business and the fundamental needs of your people.
  2. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs outlines five categories of human needs, from physiological needs to self-actualization, with higher needs emerging only when the more basic needs are met.
  3. At the foundation, make sure the basics are covered, which include providing fair compensation, setting clear goals and expectations, and ensuring job security.
  4. To create a strong culture, it’s important to help people feel connected to your company’s purpose and mission and establish ways for people and teams to feel connected.
  5. Finally, driving esteem and meeting the need for recognition, respect, and freedom, as well as creating opportunities for people to realize their full potential, can help individuals become their best selves.

Table of Contents

The Importance of Improving Employee Engagement

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 versions of themselves and to grow and evolve.

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 a 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. This is critical to improving employee engagement, especially given the unprecedented change and growth in the digital services industry. 

There are a lot of leadership frameworks and models out there, but my favorite is one of the classics: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

What Is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a foundational concept of Parallax’s culture and vision, as well as how I shape and continue to evolve my approach to leadership, motivation, and team building. 

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. 

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.

Improving Employee Engagement: Start With the Basics

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 “blindsided” 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 to get to the fun part of helping people excel and thrive.

Creating Belonging and Connection

In 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.

At the end of the day, culture and belonging are important to the human AND the business. Engaged employees will feel fulfilled, respected, and nurtured–and businesses will excel with engaged and committed teams.

Rewarding and Recognizing

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 while 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 not only recognition but also influence. 

Lead and motivate teams so they understand their impact on the organization today and how they can influence the future of the firm.

Self-Actualization: Reaching Your Full Potential

The top of Maslow’s pyramid refers to the need to be your best self and the reaching of your full potential. It may elicit eye rolls as academic bullsh*t jargon, but I truly believe that meeting people’s 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 for people to reach this point of fulfillment, their other needs must be met, including the most fundamental ones.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Applied to 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 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.

Learn How to Improve Employee Engagement With Parallax

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

Download our free Employee Satisfaction Survey template so you can check the pulse of your employee engagement and gather meaningful feedback.