How do you motivate employees? That question’s asked every day, in most organizations. How do you get people to do what you want, what you think is best for them, or what’s best for your team or the organization? Employee motivation is about why, the reasons behind why employees do things.
There are a lot of theories of motivation, about how you can get the most out of your employees by motivating them in a particular way. And the thing is, I’ve already talked about motivation in previous episodes, even if they weren’t framed in that way. Like in episode 13 I talked about how to make SMART goals SMARTER. That’s goal-setting theory, making sure employees are thoughtful about their goals and how they’re going to achieve them. And in episode 3 I talked about what employee engagement is and isn’t. Work engagement, employee engagement, is itself a theory of motivation.
So I’ve already covered parts of employee motivation in this podcast, and I’ll continue to do so in future episodes. Because motivation is at the heart of people management – how you manage, how you motivate, people to achieve goals, do their jobs, follow rules and guidelines, all that. With all these different theories to choose from, I wanted to go back to the basics with a hierarchy of employee needs.
In this episode and the next one I’ll be going over the mystery of employee needs. In this episode I’ll be reviewing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as well as the first two levels of what I call the four-by-four hierarchy of employee needs.
A hierarchy is a structure with rankings, like higher to lower, less important to more important, and so on. In organizations, the most common hierarchy is position level. For example, if you’re an individual contributor, this means no one directly reports to you. This also typically means you’re at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy, which often relates to having fewer responsibilities and decision-making powers. But if you’re at the top of the organizational hierarchy, you’re probably an owner, president, or CEO, with a lot of responsibilities and decision-making powers.
Take that idea of structured ranking and apply it to employee motivation. In other words, which needs have higher priority for employees?
Well, to get to that answer, we can start with an early theory of motivation. You’ve probably heard about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but in case you haven’t I’ll give a quick review. Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who, in the 1940s and 50s, popularized an idea of human motivation. The idea is that there are five levels of human needs, and you have to satisfy the needs in one level before you can move onto the next. The first and most basic level includes physiological needs, like the need for air, water, and food. Like nothing else really matters to people if they can’t breathe, you know? I’m not gonna think about how other people view me or whether I’m a creative person if I’m drowning or choking on food.
According to Maslow, after those basic needs are met, you then focus on safety needs, like feeling secure, having resources, having a job. Then you move up to social needs like love, friendship, and a sense of belonging. The fourth level is about esteem, like confidence in yourself, getting respect from others, feeling accomplished. Finally, he believed that after all those other needs were met, you could move on to self-actualization, or being the best version of yourself, being maximized to your fullest potential.
So again, to Maslow you could only move from one level to the next after the level you’re on has been fulfilled. The modern interpretation is that those levels don’t have to be fulfilled or completed before moving on to the next level. Instead, all the levels overlap almost all the time. It’s just that the lower-level needs often take priority in what motivates us, especially when those needs are lacking.
Despite criticisms about the scientific validity of that hierarchy of needs, I like the overall idea – human needs are complex, we all have a variety of needs, and some needs take priority over others. It gets a conversation started.
The conversation I want to start with this episode is turning that hierarchy toward employee needs. Of what you as a people manager can do and think about to make your team, department, or company a better place to work.
I’m calling the hierarchy I came up with four-by-four because it has four levels, with four topics per level. The first level is based on essential needs. These are similar to the physiological and safety needs from Maslow’s hierarchy because they’re what I believe are highest priority. In other words, if these essential needs are not met, forget about higher levels of engagement or commitment from your team members. Instead, expect lower productivity, higher turnover, higher absenteeism, the list goes on.
Okay, so what are the four topics in this level of essential employee needs? They are compensation, functional and present equipment and resources, a safe and comfortable working environment, and clear job expectations.
Unless you’re an unpaid intern or some unique situation comes up like a government shutdown, you should be paid for the work you do. That’s generally why you get a job in the first place – to get paid. Make sure your team members are paid, make sure they’re paid on time, and make sure they’re paid what they’re owed.
There’s a lot to untangle from that. A good number of corporate jobs have consistent, digital, and automated pay that managers don’t have any control over. And that’s fine, that’s one system of payment. But there are also a lot of jobs in which managers do have more direct control in, and more power over, employee pay. Like how tips are spread across waitstaff in restaurants or situations where physical paychecks are handed out during payday.
To not receive a paycheck, be docked pay, or receive a paycheck days or weeks late, can negatively impact someone’s life. Not just them as employees, but their life outside of work – not being able to afford rent, car payments, groceries, medicine. In other words, this most essential employee need can impact the basic needs in Maslow’s hierarchy.
You could expand this topic to include comp and benefits. But there are so many different employment types, like full-time, part-time, contractor, all with different kinds of benefit options, that I believe compensation is technically more essential than benefits. But they do often go hand in hand, so I didn’t want to leave benefits completely out of the conversation.
There’s a pretty good chance your job relies on having a steady internet connection. How do you feel when the internet connection goes out, especially during an important call? Or let’s say you work on the 10th floor of a building and use the elevator every day, and then one day when you go to work the elevator’s broken. How do you feel? Or when a pen runs out of ink as you’re writing and there’s no replacement in sight. Or when a desk drawer gets stuck all the time so you have to wrestle with it whenever you need to open it.
You’d probably feel bad, anxious, or irritated in all of those situations. Because you expected something to work and it didn’t. Same goes for your team members – they can’t be productive if they don’t have tools and equipment that aren’t reliable.
Along with functional equipment and resources, I also included the word “present.” As in, they exist. You can’t do your job if you don’t have the necessary tools to do it with. This means having a well-stocked office supply closet, ensuring employees have login information and appropriate privileges for whatever software your team uses, or being on top of inventory to anticipate when certain tools and hardware are running low or might need replaced.
Workplace safety is a huge topic itself, but I wanted to include it because it aligns with Maslow’s level of safety and it’s easy to see why a safe environment is important. Think about how stressed you’d be if you went into a work environment five days a week that you knew was unsafe. Maybe it’s not up to OSHA standards. Maybe there’s no security system and it’s a high-crime area. Maybe your manager bullies or harasses you. Unsafe environments take a huge toll on people’s health and wellbeing, so ensuring the physical and psychological safety of your team members is critical.
A related need is to feel comfortable. Safety and comfort often go hand-in-hand, much like comp and benefits, but with comfort I wanted to focus on things that aren’t necessarily safety hazards. Like a stiff or crooked office chair that gives you lower back pain, or a horrible smell from trash that isn’t thrown out frequently enough, or feeling so hot at your desk that you’re actively sweating. These things in your physical environment can be controlled in various ways, and as a manager you should try to ensure your team members are comfortable. It’s hard to concentrate, and therefore be productive, if your body is too busy focusing on things like smells and temperature.
This one’s a bit different from the other three. Imagine if you started a new office job, and you had a general sense of what you were going to do when you saw the job description, interviewed for the role, and all that. And on your first day you…aren’t told anything. You hang out at your desk for a bit, then ask your manager what you should be doing. Your manager tells you to ask one of your co-workers to help you out. So you reach out to a co-worker, and they just kind of shrug. What do you do then?
That’s an extreme example, but it illustrates the idea that you can’t really be productive if you don’t know what you should be doing. It seems like a no-brainer, I know, but that lack of clear communication is all too common across organizations. Employees need to know what they’re responsible for, and why. Knowing what’s expected of them can reduce confusion and uncertainty. Likewise, you can’t achieve greater things in your role if, again, you don’t know what you should be doing in that role.
One final thing is that these four topics are based on what’s normal in your job or industry. What I mean by that is that there are a lot of jobs that work in really hot, cold, or smelly conditions. There are a lot of jobs that work in hazardous conditions or involve interacting with dangerous people. So what I’m talking about with these needs is when something is off or not quite right relative to what’s normal or optimal for your specific job, industry, or occupation.
The main takeaway from this second section is that you can’t expect to have an engaged, productive, satisfied, or happy team if the essential needs of your team members aren’t met. These essential needs revolve around compensation, equipment and resources, a safe and comfortable working environment, and job expectations.
The second level is based on procedural needs. A procedure is a system for accomplishing something; how things are done. There are procedures for almost everything you do. Like in your personal life, you have your exercise routine, how you shop for food at a grocery store, how you get ready for bed every night. At work, there are the ways you respond to customers, how you send out marketing emails, what you do when there’s a hold up in production.
Think about the first level, essential needs, as being the “what.” What are you compensated, what resources and equipment do you need to do your job well, what do you need to feel comfortable and safe at work, and what are you supposed to be doing? Now think about this second level, procedural needs, as being the “how.” The four topics of this level include how much work employees have to do, how efficient work is done, how timely coworkers are, and finally how performance is measured.
How much work do you have to do? Are you too busy? Not busy enough? Do you work a lot of overtime? What’s your workload? How many job responsibilities do you have? That’s a lot of questions that all revolve around the demands being placed on you from your job.
With job demands, there’s always a balance. You don’t want team members to have so little work that they’re bored or impacting the productivity of others. But that’s nowhere near as common as the opposite side of the spectrum – of employees being so busy that they can barely keep their heads above water. That they’re overworked and overloaded.
This is a much broader critique of our society, that we expect and glorify working a lot. That workaholism is something to be proud of. That if you work less than 50 hours a week, then you’re not committed to your company. That you always have to be moving to be seen as working, with no downtime or no time to just think things through.
There are times when being overworked or overloaded just happens, such as after a huge layoff in a company or during busy seasons. But some organizations also make being overworked the norm by placing irresponsible amounts of pressure on employees. Often due to unrealistic demands of what people are capable of, which typically takes a huge physical and psychological toll on employees.
I could go on and on about this topic, but the short of it is that we can do better. To treat people like individuals who have lives outside of work. To treat people like they are not robots. Because they’re not. As a manager, you should aim to be protective of your team members’ job demands. Protective against others putting too many demands on them, and even protecting them against yourself at times, for you to reflect on whether you’re asking too much of your team.
If procedures are how things are done, efficiency is all about how you can do those things well. This topic is pretty straightforward. Definitely not easy, but straightforward – to make sure things run smoothly. To reduce roadblocks in how things are done, how decisions are made, and even how your team members interact with each other and other employees in the company.
This is about optimization, and this will completely depend on your function, industry, and organizational culture as to what is most important to optimize. For example, in episode 7 I talked about ways to resolve conflicts in your team, and in episode 9 I talked about how you can make your team meetings better. Those are about efficiency. About developing a process to reduce or manage conflict when it happens, or developing a process to optimize your team meetings. It’s easy to get analysis paralysis when thinking about all the things that could be made or done better in your company, but start with smaller things, especially those in your direct control, and then branch out from there.
Now timeliness is technically a part of efficiency, but it’s such an important part of efficiency that I believe it deserves its own topic. How often do you or your coworkers fall behind on deadlines? Do your coworkers or your manager procrastinate, putting things off until the last minute? Do you feel like you or your team are always playing catch-up? Does your manager want everything done now, with a high sense of urgency?
All of those factors can impact your productivity and your wellbeing. Could systems or processes be improved so people aren’t rushed? Is there a bottleneck somewhere in your team—could be you—that needs developed so things run more smoothly and in a timely fashion? Is there anything that can be done downline with other teams so that your team isn’t negatively impacted by a time crunch? Again, this all relates to efficiency, but you should definitely take the time to think about time.
The fourth and final topic in this level of procedural needs is performance measurement. Of expected performance outcomes and goals. Just like with clear job expectations in the previous level, this topic is an extension of that. Of knowing what you’re working toward with goals, and also how your job’s being assessed and what’s being measured in that assessment.
Make sure your team members know their individual goals and the team’s overall goals. As I mentioned in episode 13, goals provide focus, a sense of guidance on preferred and expected activities at work. Without that clarity, team members may not know what they should aim for.
One final thing I wanna say is that these needs aren’t necessarily about the individual employees themselves, but rather the people around them. Like to do their best work, employees need an appropriate level of job responsibilities – not too few, not too many. Likewise, employees need to be given enough time to do their jobs, and to not have others hold up or waste their time through procrastination or unneeded urgency. It’s your responsibility as their manager to navigate those needs with your team members.
The main takeaway from this final section is that even if employee’s essential needs are met, this doesn’t mean their procedural needs are met. As a manager, you need to make sure you or others aren’t holding back or weighing down your team members. They shouldn’t be over or underworked, they shouldn’t have unfair or unrealistic demands placed on them, they should have clear goals and expected performance outcomes, and finally you need to have efficient systems in place, especially in one-on-one and team meetings.
As a recap of this episode, I discussed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the first two levels of the four-by-four hierarchy of employee needs. Those two levels are essential needs and procedural needs.
Remember that this entire episode is about employee motivation. And how you motivate employees is a complex topic, there’s no doubt about that. But organizations often miss the mark on what they should focus on to help employees the most. The topics I discussed in this episode should be your number one priority because they’re the most basic needs that should be met for your employees. So if you’re noticing that your team or organization seems to have consistent issues with higher-than-average turnover and absenteeism, poor performance, or low levels of engagement, consider going back to the basics by evaluating your employees’ essential and procedural needs.
And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I’ll continue discussing the four-by-four hierarchy of employee needs.