Manager Mysteries & Mishaps Podcast

Motivate employees by thinking about their needs: part 2.

This episode continues to explore how you can motivate employees, first by reviewing relational and developmental employee needs and then combining all the needs discussed in this and the previous episode.


This episode is a direct continuation of the previous episode. If you haven’t listened to it yet, check it out. As a quick summary, I started with a simple question: how do you motivate employees? I discussed how to motivate employees by considering their needs. First I went over Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which is a pretty old school but popular theory of motivation.

Then I went over the first two levels of what I call the four-by-four hierarchy of employee needs. The lowest level, essential needs, relates to the most basic needs of an employee, including compensation, functional and present equipment and resources, a safe and comfortable working environment, and clear job expectations. The second level, procedural needs, is based on needs related to how things are done, including how much work employees have to do, how efficiently work is done, how timely coworkers are, and how performance is measured.

In this episode I’ll continue discussing the mystery of how to motivate employees by considering their needs. I’ll be reviewing the third and fourth levels of the four-by-four hierarchy of employee needs, as well as bringing it all together.


Third Level: Relational Needs

This strongly relates to Maslow’s third level of love and belonging. It’s the need to be taken care of by others and in turn take care of them, to feel like they’ve got your back, to feel supported, and that you’re part of group of people who make you feel like you belong.

If the first level of essential needs is the what, and the second level of procedural needs is the how, then this third level of relational needs is the who. Who are your coworkers and team members – do you trust them or work well with them? Who is your manager – do you trust her, does she support you? Who recognizes your contributions, and who do you show appreciation to at work? Finally, who do you, as a manager, spend the most time with, give the most opportunities, give the most praise, and so on? Is it ever unfair, or could others in your team see your behaviors as favoritism?


Team Member Relationships

Remember that this episode is about how to motivate employees, so this topic has less to do with personal relationships among team members and more to do with working relationships. Technically you’re included in this as a manager, but I’m going to focus a bit more on coworker relationships, like your direct reports.

It can be very demotivating when you don’t trust your coworkers to do their jobs well or at all. That you have to pick up the slack, keep others on track, or that you constantly have to double or triple check anything that a coworker does for fear of low-quality work. And I’m talking about a coworker doing all that for other coworkers, not what you as a manager should be doing. Imagine how stressful that would be, to essentially have all the responsibilities of a manager but without the power, acknowledgment, or pay that a higher position like a manager often has.

That’s what your job’s for. To manage your team so others in your team don’t have to. Coaching toward better performance, stronger collaboration, and hopefully stronger levels of trust between your team members. Team members need to know they can rely on and trust their coworkers. This all wraps up into team cohesion, or how much your team members feel unified, how much they want your team to be a functional unit. The more cohesive your team, the more motivated and productive your team tends to be.   


Manager Relationships

The second topic is about manager relationships. This is piggybacking right off the first topic. Now, team member working relationships are important for motivation and productivity, but the relationships between managers and their direct reports are, I believe, far more important and impactful. And that shouldn’t be a surprise – I mean, that’s literally the purpose of this podcast with a name like Manager Mysteries & Mishaps. For you to be open and available, supportive, encouraging, and all those other things that could be entire episodes. Because this podcast is about managing people better, I’m not going to spend anymore time on this topic. But I did want to include it because of just how important it is with regard to employee needs.


Recognition and Praise

I covered this topic in-depth in episode 14, so check that out if you want more details. As a quick summary of that episode, recognition is about acknowledgment and feeling appreciated, which is a fundamental human need. Unfortunately, it’s not really a high priority for most organizations, even though employees often crave some type of appreciation for the work they do.

To address that, I came up with what I call SMART recognition, with SMART being an acronym, S.M.A.R.T. This is just a cute spin on SMART goal setting. To be SMART recognition, it should be specific, meaningful, authentic, relevant, and timely. And one thing I do stress is that not all recognition has to be SMART – even following at least two or three of the components of S.M.A.R.T. is great. It’s all about creating a culture of recognition, of making employees feel appreciated, to motivate them and allow them to feel like their efforts are noticed and valued.     


Fairness and Favoritism

Imagine if you weren’t a people manager, and instead an individual contributor. You work hard, and you get along well enough with your manager, yet you never get assigned the big projects, the ones that could really let you show off your strengths and what you’re capable of.

You’ve noticed that one of your coworkers doesn’t work as much or as hard as you do, yet whenever a big project or opportunity comes up, they’re generally the top pick by your manager. You’ve also noticed that that coworker and your manager seem to have a great relationship, if not a strong friendship.

How would you feel in that situation, knowing that your hard work didn’t really matter? That challenging or even career-changing projects are being given to someone who you think doesn’t deserve it. That’s not just demotivating, that’s demoralizing, because you realize that all that matters in your team is being friends with your manager.

This is a tricky topic because of the tightrope that people managers have to walk between being friendly and open, and letting that friendliness unfairly guide your judgment. I’ll spend an entire episode talking about this in the future, but for now the main thing I’ll say is that people are very, very sensitive to perceptions of injustice. Like not getting their fair share, thinking others are getting things they don’t deserve, and so on. With that in mind, try your best to be mindful of whether any relationships you have with your team members could be viewed as unfair by others. Do you tend to be a little too lenient on certain team members? Do you tend to give bigger projects to certain members, perhaps overlooking the opportunity those projects could offer other team members?    


The main takeaway from this first section is that the level of relational needs considers different aspects of how employees feel about other people. How they feel about their teammates, their managers, who’s recognizing them or not, and whether there’s any kind of unfairness or favoritism going on.


Fourth Level: Developmental Needs

This level is kind of a combination of Maslow’s fourth and fifth levels of esteem and self-actualization. Of feeling accomplished and confident in yourself, as well as trying to be the best version of yourself, of maximizing your potential.

The first three levels represented questions roughly revolving around what, how, and who. So this level of developmental needs revolves around where. Where is the organization headed? Where is your career headed, or where can it go? Where can you develop as an individual? And where can you voice your opinions?


Clear Change Communication

The first topic is about clear change communication. Change brings uncertainty, and uncertainty brings anxiety. That’s how the cycle goes. Whether big or small, any change causes feelings of uncertainty around what’ll happen and how it’ll affect you. This uncertainty can then create anxiety in people, sometimes even fear. And the less people know about those changes, the more intense those negative feelings get.

If employees are kept in the dark, they’ll make up their own stories. The thing is, most people don’t like change, at least change that they’re not doing or have control over. So most employees will instinctively fill in any blanks with negativity, and that negativity can hurt motivation and engagement.

Your job as a people manager is to fill in those blanks with information and, hopefully, positivity. To minimize anxiety by reducing uncertainty. And if you don’t know about a certain change that was announced or that you heard through the grapevine, do your best to elevate your concerns by asking others for more details. You need to make sure you know as much as possible about what’s going on so you can be a symbol of certainty and guidance to your team members.


Professional Development

Contrary to the previous topic, a lot of employees like this kind of change. Of developing within their current role or skillset, or expanding toward the possibility of another role. I covered this topic in episode 2, but the short of it is that perceptions of professional growth and development are often a strong driver of engagement, yet those perceptions are also consistently lower than desired within organizations.

It’s demotivating to want to grow within your role but not be given opportunities to expand. And this can be made worse when we go back to the first topic of this level. If you work in an organization that quickly goes through a lot of changes, and those changes aren’t communicated well, then that makes it really difficult to fully understand where you can grow as an employee. It’s like aiming at targets that are constantly moving really fast. As a manager, consider the opportunities that your team members want and have available to them.  


Personal Development

This is the flip side of the previous topic. There’s the professional, which typically includes your job role, your training, the specific skills you use daily or weekly, all that. Then there’s the personal, like your personal opinions and worldview, how you approach others’ opinions and worldviews, how you respond to conflict, and so on. You could also kinda call this hard skills and soft skills.  

Certainly there’s an overlap between the personal and the professional - I’m  not suggesting that they’re two completely different things. They’re both within the same person. But I wanted to make a separate callout for personal development because it’s approached a bit differently than professional development. This topic is much more…intimate, in a way, because it’s not something that can just be done in a workshop or an online class, and most people won’t get to know employees at this level.

But you as a manager can and should. The easiest way is to conduct frequent one-on-one meetings with your team members. I discussed these continuous conversations in the very first episode of this podcast, but it bears repeating. A once- or twice-a-year performance review or discussion doesn’t cut it anymore. Employees need feedback more frequently because they and your organization are constantly changing and growing.

And despite those conversations often being about professional development, make room for personal development. Things you think your employee should work on, or things employees themselves think they can improve upon.   



Feedback is a reaction to something, generally with improvement as the main outcome. Most development occurs through feedback of some sort, like one-on-one conversations, so this entire level of employee needs is rooted in feedback.

As a manager, you should aim to create a culture of feedback within your team. That team members can freely ask for and give feedback to others without fear of hurt feelings, punishment, or anything like that. There’s giving feedback and receiving feedback, and both are valuable skills. And although we typically think of feedback as a one-way activity, like from you to your team members, there’s also two-way feedback. Of you asking for and receiving feedback from your team members.


One last thing I wanna say about this level is that it isn’t going to apply to as many employees as the other three levels. In other words, not everyone is motivated to grow and develop. Some people just don’t care, or don’t feel a need, to expand beyond their current skillset, job role, opinions, or worldview. That’s important to keep in mind as a manager because you can’t motivate employees if you’re not tapping into something that’s of interest to them. And it could actually backfire and be demotivating if you try to push them toward some type of development they’re resistant to.  

The main takeaway from this second section is that developmental needs are about growth, and you can’t grow without knowledge. This knowledge, this information, can come in the form of knowing why organizational changes are happening, how you can grow professionally and personally, and how you give and respond to feedback around all these different kinds of growth and development.


Bringing Everything Together

The four-by-four hierarchy of employee needs is intended to give you line of sight into how to motivate employees. Or at least one way to think about motivating employees. The hierarchy starts with the first level of essential needs, then goes to procedural needs, then relational needs, and finally developmental needs. Another way to frame those levels is that they roughly go along with answering questions that start with what, how, who, and where.  

In an ideal world, the needs from the first two levels should be fulfilled before putting most of your effort into the third and fourth levels. Yet most content that’s aimed toward people management, this podcast included, tends to focus almost exclusively on the third and fourth levels and rarely mention the first two.

I don’t think we spend enough time thinking about those first two levels. They’re almost always left to HR to figure out as part of some compliance policy or program, but rarely do those topics enter conversations about what managers can help with. Or frankly what managers have power to control. We tend to focus too much on high-level cultural aspects, like the relational and developmental needs, and not enough on the essential and procedural needs.

But that’s the thing about this hierarchy – it’s all my opinion. I’m sure as you listened to this episode or the previous episode you disagreed about the priority of a topic, or wondered why something was missing. The four-by-four hierarchy doesn’t cover everything about the employee experience – it just covers those areas that I’ve tended to notice as being more important to employees. Other topics that I could easily see integrated into that hierarchy are clear communication around organizational values, an emphasis on personal values and ethics, and how meaningful someone’s job is to them.

Or you could even throw on a fifth, kind of floating level about aspirational needs. Those things that tend to go beyond development, like health and wellness, diversity and inclusion, and corporate social responsibility. But again, I could see people saying “Woah, wait a minute Dan – diversity and inclusion is an essential need, not something that should be aspirational.” There are definitely going to be disagreements for as broad of a picture as I’ve painted with this hierarchy, but ultimately it’s a conversation starter.

And in terms of a conversation, what I’m trying to draw the most attention to is the fact that too many organizations gloss over certain employee needs because addressing them would take too much time, energy, or money. Like why pay your employees fairly when you can just throw a pizza party every once in a while? People are motivated by food, right? Or if your employees are constantly stressed and burned out, you can just have a yoga workshop and that’ll fix everything. Because people are motivated after they take a break, right?

I hope my cynicism is coming through loud and clear because it’s that band-aid treatment that concerns and annoys me. A pizza party, a yoga workshop, casual Fridays, those don’t truly mean anything to your employees if their basic needs aren’t being met in their day-to-day jobs. It’s just window dressing, smoke and mirrors, a low-effort attempt to show that you care when in fact it drives home the truth that you don’t. How you do show your employees that you care is trying to understand their needs and then addressing the needs that aren’t being adequately fulfilled.



As a recap of this episode, I discussed levels three and four of the four-by-four hierarchy of employee needs, as well as a summary of all those levels. And that last section was really the true recap because it combined everything I talked about from both this and the previous episode.

What I hope from all of this talk of employee needs and how to motivate employees is that you’re now thinking more broadly, maybe even a little differently, about what would make your team better. The four-by-four hierarchy of employee needs is just a starting point, a jumping-off point for further discussion. Because ultimately that’s what’s most important – no matter how much you read, listen to, or watch about being a better manager, the answers always lie within your team members.

And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I’ll discuss change management.  

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