Aligning needs to employee engagement – how we can easily get it wrong with the best intentions


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Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Many people working in communications, marketing and PR will be familiar with Marlow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is often one of the main models taught when studying the theory behind what we do.

I revisited it recently in the book Art of Resilience, by Ross Edgley, and a story in that book made me think about our alignment of reward and need in the workplace. Ross’s book tells his story about his swim around the United Kingdom – something no one had done before.

In my work, taking organisations through The Field Model, I often talk about getting the basics right. You’ll struggle with engagement for a company party (online or in person) to celebrate some big milestone when you’re not getting the basics right around job descriptions and fairness for promotion.

Listening to Ross (I chose the audiobook to listen while I drive) tell the story of his 100 days at sea milestone struck a chord.

Ross talks about an amazing moment where sky writers took to the air to write 100 days and a love heart in sky as he hit the milestone. While the intention was wonderful and he wasn’t ungrateful at all, what he really wanted was… bread. He went on to say it could have been white, brown, granary, any kind – but he wanted bread.

He links this to needs and the different levels Maslow suggests. The skywriting is an esteem need. It was designed to celebrate him and his accomplishment. It’s fairly high up the pyramid, just below self-actualisation, and was done with the absolutely right intentions to celebrate what he was doing the 100 day milestone.

The reality for Ross, was that he was further down the pyramid. Much further. In fact, he was at the bottom in physiological needs where it’s all about food, shelter, warmth and rest.

In some ways, the esteem need is easy – and a much more comfortable place for us to go when it comes to employee engagement. There are often links to reward and recognition when it comes to engagement and this is all about esteem. But if employees aren’t there and are further down the pyramid this just won’t have the impact some might think it will.

This made me think about the current climate specifically when it’s likely individuals are further down the pyramid than they might have been pre pandemic. Our focus on some of the more physiological needs and safety needs shouldn’t be underestimated at the moment. It made me wonder what is being done to address those in the workplace as well – or at least being mindful about the need state of our employees.

At the moment, physiological, safety and belongingness will be important to focus on. If you’re a line manager, how are you focussing on these with your team? How are you checking in that these are all being met both at work and at home? And importantly, how can we all help each other?

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