Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: An employee engagement perspective

In discussions with business owners and organization leaders over the last few years, one of the recurring themes is that they are always looking for the kind of people who will take ownership of their jobs, and are also searching for ideas to foster that same sense of ownership with their existing team. What they want and need is an employee group that is 100% engaged in their jobs.

It is not surprising that “employee engagement” is such a hot topic in today’s business environment. Many of the organizations that we work with actively survey their employees to measure “engagement.”

Just to establish a working definition, employee engagement is when your people think through on their own or in a team what the business needs, connect to their part in it, and have the focus to carry out what has to be done regardless of the problems along the way. Their minds and hearts are in the game.

So, in the spirit of employee engagement, here is a fresh look at Maslow’s five-level hierarchy of needs. Remember that Maslow developed a view of human needs where people could move up levels only when the current level is satisfied.

Level 1 – Survival

This is the level that deals with the most basic of human needs: food, shelter, etc. It is not a level where employee engagement plays a strong role.

Level 2 – Security

In a business context, this is the level that refers to pension plans, health benefits, vacation days, etc. At best, positive changes in these areas are temporary motivators. However, if a company starts taking away or decreasing these benefits, it can be very demotivating and have a tremendous negative impact on employee engagement. We had a perfect example of this in Wisconsin when the Legislature passed Act 10, which took away collective bargaining rights for thousands of employees.

Level 3 – Belonging

This is the level that addresses a social need – the feeling that one is part of something bigger. In a business context, those who do not get this feeling from their place of work are not only not engaged, they will get it from somewhere else (their softball team, their church, their service club, etc.) or look for a new company.

Level 4 – Importance

Maslow indicated that this was an intrinsic sense of importance. No business can make people feel important, we can only foster and nurture an environment that supports this feeling. Engaged employees feel that they are a vital part of the success of their organization, and their efforts show it.

Level 5 – Self-Actualization

Reaching this stage, the emphasis is on what you can do for others. Recognition is not needed because it is established from within. Maslow contended that only

15% of people reach this level.


As managers, leaders and business owners, we often do not have control over levels 1 and 2. And as is noted above, these levels are not where engagement will typically take place anyway. Level 5 refers to an individual’s sense of personal satisfaction, which can only come from within. Therefore, the two areas that do have a direct impact on employee engagement are levels 3 and 4.

If an organization truly wants to score higher on its engagement surveys and nurture an environment where all employees bring a sense of ownership to their positions, here is the question that should be at the top of the list:

In what ways can we foster an even more engaged employee group by giving them a greater sense of belonging and importance?

At Dale Carnegie Training, we have used this question as a kick-start for brainstorming meetings with many clients. You can only imagine the number of ideas that are generated by this question. The challenge that people have after this initial exercise is to distill the hundreds of ideas down to actionable plans. And yes, that is a great challenge to have if you are building a team that will take your organization to an even higher level.

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