Maslow Helps Us Shine a Flashlight on Your Team’s Motivation


Happy New Year! Yet again another spin around the sun completed!  We humans have long honored this annual celestial journey through space. It’s become a tradition for many to look for a starting line for tackling a New Year’s task or initiative. Frankly, there’s no time like the fresh turn of the calendar page to strive for change and personal adaptation. To help accommodate, we may utilize various psychological theories to assign meaning and find new ways to create efficiencies, communicate more effectively, sell more homes, close more files, appraise more properties, etc.

When it comes to better understanding personal and personnel gains, we might turn to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for a little extra guidance on how human psychology factors into one’s professional growth.

A psychology class presentation at Valdosta State University, cited from Educational Psychology Interactive, (Huitt, W. 2007) deals with Maslow’s theories and his work with the hierarchy on human motivation. As the study highlights, Maslow worked to show that humans have a psychological hierarchy of needs, and to achieve the next level, more basic needs must first be met in ascending order.

The five levels proposed by Maslow are:

1. Physiological: hunger, thirst, bodily comforts, etc.

2. Safety & Security: out of danger.

3. Belongingness and Love: affiliate with others, be accepted.

4. Esteem: to achieve, be competent, gain approval and recognition.

5. Self-Actualization: to know, understand, see beauty and realize one’s full potential.

As we evaluate the five levels through a career based lens, we realize that many of us have an intrinsic motivation to climb this hierarchy. Some of us naturally reach higher levels. Others may require some extra help from those that have already achieved.

The goal here (with an assist from Maslow), is to get you thinking how to best leverage human motivation to achieve the next levels of personal and organizational development.

Level one, Physiological, is needed for basic functioning and is, for the most part, a given for America’s professional workforce. Fortunately, most of our colleagues in the settlement services space are able to secure food, clothing and shelter. Given that, there is no need to focus here for this piece.

At level two, Safety and Security, an individual may ask; “am I in constant fear of losing my job despite adequate performance?…Will my company pay me for the work that I complete?” This again falls into the standard operating category for most folks. They are able to pay for basic necessities and hold a stable job…enough for some people.  However, an employee at this level is potentially disengaged. They might come in, punch the clock, do their work with a blank stare, void of connection with their job and their coworkers. A team stacked with those operating at this level is obviously suboptimal, and as a leader, you may use Maslow’s hierarchy here as a guide to help motivate your team to take the next step for their professional growth.  Maybe help them connect with coworkers and build meaningful work relationships to further engage and strengthen their relative perception of safety and security. It may be beneficial to build these bonds in a nontraditional setting. If you address the exercise of establishing deeper connections only in a work setting, the team may not buy into the process. Instead, you might attempt to facilitate a more personal and social experience without the typical work dynamics involved, so that relationships can form more organically.

Speaking of connecting with others, this leads us into level three: Belongingness and Love. In the title insurance and appraisal workforce, this is where you will probably find the majority of gainfully employed and seemingly happy individuals. They enjoy relative security in their position, likely produce adequate results and feel a true sense of connection with their coworkers and work environment. They participate in teambuilding activities, actively engage with superiors and direct reports, and willingly socialize with teammates outside of the office environment.

To help foster level three and above, it is advisable that leaders strive to build a culture that welcomes and encourages a meaningful connection between team members beyond the necessary minimum for business function and productivity. These bonds provide a greater sense of meaning and can help someone change their way of thinking of their Monday through Friday to the glaringly disparate mentality of “I have to go to work today” to “I get to go to work today”. Establishing and reinforcing the latter comes with numerous organizational benefits such as increased productivity, higher retention/lower turnover rates, and therefore a better chance at sustained profitability.

Level four, Esteem, is where you will most often find your real movers and shakers in the financial services sector. The top producers. The “Rock Stars”. These are the folks that are adept at gaining recognition and perfecting their respective craft. They take pride in their work, consistently achieve goals, and essentially make the first few levels an afterthought. Other people want to connect and establish relationships with these types. Their roles are secure because, barring unforeseen circumstances, no employer in their right mind would risk losing them. To the benefit of themselves and also your organization, their time and energy is focused on being the best version of themselves. Getting to level four in the professional world may take extra individual effort and also strong support from your organization and leadership team. That said, if you like winning, it is advisable to develop, recruit and populate your team with the highest percentage as possible operating at this level.

The Esteem level is perhaps the perceived goal for most of the working class.  However, the rarely achieved fifth level: Self-Actualization, would be a great accomplishment for you and your team in most any circumstance. Self-actualized people are described as “being problem focused, incorporating an ongoing freshness of appreciation of life, a concern of personal growth, and the ability to have peak experiences” (Huitt, W. 2007).  To some, this definition may come off as overly spiritual or as a description of the Dali Llama’s traits….rarified air.  However, these people do exist and often hold key leadership roles in their respective landscape. They tend to have an answer for every situation. Their demeanor is almost always calm, cool and collected. They are typically also looking to help others achieve their greatest potential, whether that means reaching the level of Esteem or Self-Actualization. They are the tide that raises all sinking ships. The challenge is that there is no magic bean that allows a human to grow to a self-actualized state. It is a combination of a multitude of characteristics that allow you to realize your full potential. You must accurately assess who you truly are without outside influence. Focus on solving problems for the benefit of others and not personal gain. Find enjoyment by seeing routine tasks and experiences through new perspectives to appreciate the world around you. Utilize your personal experiences in these exercises to continue to develop and build upon your current self. Tap into the newly found creative perspectives to further impact those around you.

To summarize, people at the lowest levels are seeking information to help them cope with their life position and to help meet their basic needs and securities for a happy life. By helping these folks reach the next level, this is probably where you, as a more developed leader, can have the biggest overall effect on your organization. People at level three and four are looking for more enlightening information to continue to build meaningful relationships, and more empowering information to continue developing. At this level, you can really take out the scalpel and employ a highly tailored, individually focused approach. For those of you that have reached level five, congratulations!

Huitt, W. (2007). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University.

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