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Maslow hierarchy of needs applied to employee engagement


Maslow hierarchy of needs can be applied to employee engagement; it is an interesting exercise since help us to understand why we should implement correction in our management style in order to retain talents and best performers inside the company.

The 5 level of Maslow can be somehow translated into the engagement level of the employee as showed in the image.

So let try to understand the 5 levels.

This five stage model can be divided into deficiency needs and growth needs. The first four levels are often referred to as deficiency needs and the top level is known as growth or being needs.

The deficiency needs are said to motivate people when they are unmet. Also, the need to fulfil such needs will become stronger the longer the duration they are denied. For example, the longer a person goes without food the more hungry they will become.

One must satisfy lower level deficit needs before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs. When a deficit need has been satisfied it will go away. Our activities become habitually directed towards meeting the next set of needs that we have yet to satisfy. These then become our salient needs. However, growth needs continue to be felt and may even become stronger once they have been engaged. Once these growths needs have been reasonably satisfied, one may be able to reach the highest level called self-actualization.

Any work environment follow more or less the same dynamics since is human related, therefore can be done a transposition of the basic human needs in terms of employee behavior. In company terms this would mean try to understand what the engagement level of the employee is accordingly to hisher satisfaction level.


5 Survival

Starting bottom up we find the first level is the “survival”, the covering of immediate needs.

In this category we find the most disengaged employee, the ones that can not fit into the company culture and management and, basically, stay there because of the money and because they have no other choices.

This kind of employee does not have any kind of “attraction” or “affection” with the company, the work there is just a mere question of surviving. Of course heshe will leave at the first possible chance unless the barrier to mobility (cultural or economic) is too high.

It is interesting to notice that this kind of attitude can be driven by 2 factors:

  • Cultural
  • Management driven

The cultural approach is present when there is no perception of value of the work, but just a mere fulfillment of economical needs. But on the other end a very bad management attitude can drive people to this level in a very shorten time, when expectation on value, respect, trust and ethics are not met by the company management.

From a company point of view this is a very dangerous zone since this kind of employee does not find any reward or satisfaction on the job, not can see any possibility to rise up hisher status, not at least in that environment.

If this can be a problem with mere low level operative roles, is absolutely negative for higher company function, or whenever a “commitment” is required as, it is an obvious consideration, in case of knowledge workers.

4 Security

This is a common situation of “not engaged” people. People that have its own work ethics but can’t find in the company the needed fulfillment; therefore take as only value the compensation.

This is usually linked by a poor management environment, as a matter of fact people in this zone does not feel that are using their skills appropriately, and does not feel that the job, the management or the team they are inserted is the right place to be.

Typically this kind of employees offer a higher service for the company than the previous one, but their cultural need to find satisfaction in their job tend to move them to look for new possibilities. This can not be necessary a condition matched by a higher level of compensation, often is strictly related to job conditions itself.

Micromanagement andor autocratic management styles are usually the cause of this not engagement. Whilst there is not sense of belonging nor affection to the company, the compensation level is enough to keep the employee as long as he she does not find a more appealing working condition.

Those first two levels are intrinsically demotivating, and can affect working performance. While in the first level expectation can not exceed the minimum required level to do the job, on the second one can be present more performing results due to the possibility to gain more “money” as a compensation of the low job esteem.


3 belonging

According to Maslow’s model below the two basic levels that fill the basic needs, we find the psychological needs.

This means, basically that once the minimum level of services has been reached people tend to satisfy needs that would be, otherwise, somehow out of reach, as love and friendship.

In business terms this can be express by a sense of belonging in the company and therefore an active engagement.

The next 3 levels describe a situation where the employee find its satisfaction inside the company and try to fulfill further needs inside the company itself.

This is the main different with the first 2 stages, in the first 2 any upgrade or fulfillment of higher desires is seen only going outside the company, bringing as consequence the low or neutral engagement, while in the next three the perception is that the satisfaction of higher needs can be found inside the company itself, this, coped with the natural desire of human being to improve, can bring high value in terms of quality and willingness to succeeds.

In other terms people is motivated.

In the first of the 3 psychological stages employees feel a sense of belonging, but needs are not completely satisfied. With the sense of “proudness” there is also the disenchanted look at the market because there can be a better position.

The good part comes from the management and the quality of the work, while the main obstacle in this case is mainly related to possible career path.

In absence of a clear career path the natural need to rise up the satisfaction level can bring the employee to look elsewhere.

While this is usually a passive openness to move, if the career path are closed the employee can feel a sense of betray and shift hisher perception to level 4. The most appealing job offer would, in this case, offer a sensitive paycheck raise and a better, more prestigious, position.

The work performance are, in any way, usually very good since the employee feel a rewarding coming from the job and the surrounding environment.

4 importance

Right above the belonging level we can find what Maslow define as esteem needs.

This is usually achieved in business when the employee feel itself as an important part of the organization, he is rewarded and achieved. The feeling of “being able to make the difference” and the perception that a growth path is possible make this kind of employee highly engaged, motivated and motivator with the colleagues.

The point is that the perception of being part of that team, that environment, that company is rewarding by itself and makes the employee proud. Usually people in this state would move only for a “lifetime offer” and not tempted by small pay rise. The difference has to be “important” both in terms of money compensation and role.

1 self actualization

This is when the employee finds its own meaning inside the company. The satisfaction level is the highest since the perceptions are that the company fulfills all needs economical and, most important, psychological.

This means the employee feel to be part of the group, is proud, fell can make the difference and even hisher creative part is stimulated.

In this stage it is very unlikely that an employee want to leave, and his her commitment to the company and the job is the greatest.

Clearly this is quite a hard status to achieve.

Why Maslow’s hierarchy of needs matter

We can ask ourselves what this has to do with job? Well knowing what can motivate demotivate someone can influence heavily his her work performances as well his her retention.

HR that are looking to hire, Managers that want to increase team performances can find in this model a “simply” way to understand what to do or what to offer.

One of the interesting parts of this approach is that accordingly to mallow theory the natural need to fulfill higher level of needs can be used inside an organization to promote the sense of belonging and the overall performance in terms of results and quality. Rewarding and fulfilling needs pay off.

But a rewarding approach is a completely different approach from the commonly used punitive approach common in many bad management practices.

It is easy to understand how bad people management practices put people in the lowest level of the hierarchy (5 and 4) and affect heavily the quality of the job done.

But reaching level 3 requires a big commitment in terms of human resources and management effort. The payoff is usually enough to justify the effort, or at least this seems to be the approach of modern high tech companies where commitment and dedication need to go hand in hand with risk taking, creativity and high skills.

The lower the need for a company to provide quality, flexibility and creativity the lower will be the need for the company to move to satisfy levels above 4.

But just to be clear, being below level 3 in a tech company expose the company itself to lower productivity and lower retention right where the most talented resources in terms of skills and motivation are needed.

About Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review. Maslow subsequently extended the idea to include his observations of humans’ innate curiosity. His theories parallel many other theories of human developmental psychology, some of which focus on describing the stages of growth in humans. Maslow used the terms “physiological”, “safety”, “belongingness” and “love”, “esteem”, “self-actualization”, and “self-transcendence” to describe the pattern that human motivations generally move through.

Maslow studied what he called exemplary people such as Albert EinsteinJane AddamsEleanor Roosevelt, and Frederick Douglass rather than mentally ill or neurotic people, writing that “the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy.” Maslow studied the healthiest 1% of the college student population.

Maslow’s theory was fully expressed in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality. The hierarchy remains a very popular framework in sociology research, management training and secondary and higher psychology instruction.


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Micromanagement vs. experts: the original sin in organizations

bt2_8163I was reading an interesting article about micromanagement (Why Is Micromanagement So Infectious?) that forced me to write again on management issue.

My interest is on the implication of a micromanagement attitude on a team with a focus on expert management.

In business management, micromanagement is a management style whereby a manager closely observes or controls the work of subordinates or employees. Micromanagement generally has a negative connotation.

Micromanagement classic symptoms are the lack of delegation, the imposition of company rules regardless their effectiveness or fairness, the not contextualization of task and goals, the trivial focus on the lesser details or procedural trivia, the so called “reportmania” , the continuous references to prove even the most obvious statement and so on

Micromanagement is born in environment where static and well defined sequences of activities were the only needed request to employee to perform hisher duty. While micromanagement can find its reason in old production environments, in modern world business management has presented different management techniques in order to address a different kind of employee, the knowledge worker.

The reason behind this shift of focus is that the employees have to confront not a static production environment therefore need to quickly adapt and take ownership of decisions needed in a very short-term. This requires a different set of expertise and skills that forced business management theory to introduce the concepts of “knowledge worker”.

Knowledge workers

A knowledge worker is, using the Wikipedia definition:

Knowledge workers are workers whose main capital is knowledge. Examples include software engineers, physicians, pharmacists, architects, engineers, scientists, public accountants, lawyers, and academics, whose job is to “think for a living”
Those kinds of workers are required to address a deeper and wider spread of knowledge needed to address current complex and evolving environment, where static rules and approach would be less effective. The value of a knowledge worker is hisher knowledge which should be used to address new and unknown problems, optimize previous process, open new market and so on.
In an environment where knowledge working is fundamental for organization survival micromanagement is the classical portrait of a bad manager … why is this?
Because a manager in a knowledge working environment should manage resources giving them autonomy, trust and resources to accomplish their assigned goals, otherwise would not be managing effectively knowledge worker resources.
This is a serious issue in every company that makes of innovation and technology its reason, since micromanagement does not come well with creativity which is a mandatory requirement for innovation.

Why this is bad in high-tech environment?

The idea behind micromanagement is associated to 2 nefarious assumptions:
1) The employee cannot be trust
2) The manager knows better how to do the job.

Let see in detail what those assumption means:

Trust issue:

Trust is a bidirectional relationship, as respect or, outside working realm, friendship.

Not giving trust means not receiving trust. This affects, basically, the whole environment.

In a team environment, which is the basic requirement to justify the need of a manager, lack of trust consequence is to collapse on start any real collaboration between team members that is not strictly imposed or previously codified.
The resulting dynamics affect flexibility and creativity which is deadly in a complex ever-changing environment like the ITC one.

Another problem related to the trust issue associated to micromanagement is that without delegation there is no assumption of responsibility and therefore there is a tendency to avoid any risk.

While risk minimization can seem to be a good thing, the problem is that not taking any risk means not doing anything different or new. This is the quickest way to block growth and evolution, which are essential for an organization to survive.

In a micromanagement environment subordinated avoid taking responsibility and risks due to the management attitude which does not price this as a value. This attitude runs to the entire control chain or hierarchy, typically shifting blame towards lower levels which, on the other end, does not have ways to change things due to the micromanagement attitude and constrains.

Moreover from an ethical point of view would worth to ask ourselves what are the basis that made a manager more trustable than one of hisherits reports. Considering, in particular, the knowledge workers we are talking in most of the cases of seasoned professionals that have provided their services in several environment; the necessity of strong ethics and commitment are necessary for that kind of activity and, by the way, in the last 30 years more and more studies showed how the assumption that managers works for the sake of the company greater good is not compliant to reality.

Knowledge issue:

In older production environments most of the knowledge was related to the experience maturated doing a specific manual task. The classical application has been, historically, the introduction of the assembly or production lines. In those kinds of environments the need for team management was less strict; since any member was having a predetermined set of actions and defined skills, while all the decision process was demanded to the upper layer, micromanagement was an acceptable behavior and was, at a certain extent, the way to transmit knowledge to the new employees.

In this scenario was natural to assign middle management function to employees based on experience maturated inside the company, since the company and the product or assembly line was the only given reference.

While the assumption the manager is more knowledgeable of hisher report can be truthful in a not knowledge worker environment, by its nature a knowledge worker environment require a deeper breath of skills that cannot be collected in a single source.

The reason is basically connected to the two dimension of knowledge, wide and deep.

Micromanagement is not possible if the deep or the wide of the knowledge required exceed manager knowledge, which is a common situation. As a result micromanagement shift its focus on trivial aspects not strictly related to the goal.
The whole point of expertise is to fill the gap for the organization; if the manager would be able to fill this gap knowledge workers would not be necessary.

Probably the best quote against micromanagement attitude can be taken from a famous former Apple CEO Steve Jobs statement.

“…it doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

This exemplify in an excellent way why micromanagement is not a good idea when dealing with knowledge workers.
Management is a complicated issue

Micromanagement is not the only portrait of a bad manager as lack of delegation is not just the only portrait of a micromanager. But for sure a micromanager is a bad manager, while not being a micromanager does not means automatically you are a good manager.
Alas in absence of micromanagement as the management style the manager have to find a way to manage, motivate, reward, help, support, and give goals to hisher team members.

The most complicated part is that in modern knowledge working environment some or even all of the team members can have higher seniority in terms of knowledge, age and experience of the direct manager itself, which makes micromanagement, as well as other bad management common practices, not only not practical but even counterproductive.

When a company hire expertise is hiring a knowledge worker, this means to adopt the correct management style.

A correct management style means to start working on goals and targets (forget the damn KPI for once and start thinking as a professional), defining jointly the requirements (which means the level of autonomy, the delegated authority needed, the sponsorship, the credentials among other groups and so on) and setting in a correct way the operative environment.

If this is done micromanagement is absolutely nonsense, if this is not done using experts is absolutely nonsense.

Antonio Ieranò
CSO, Cyber Security Architect, technical evangelist, consultant, writer, journalist and trainer
I am a Security Manager and architect, CSO, BDM, marketing specialist, and tech evangelist with over 20 years of experience serving as a community liaison, subject matter expert, and high-profile [...]