Illustration of a man observing Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs with various icons in the pyramid
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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Want to leverage Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as a leader? Try this short course to see how the theory can be applied in practical work scenarios.

Everyone in the world has looked at someone in a position of leadership—a boss, a CEO, a president, or even a parent—and thought, “I could do that job so much better.” It happens when you see your boss make a decision based on biases or follow incomplete evidence. It happens when a politician’s choices seem self-serving. And it happens when team leaders have poor communication skills.

If you are a leader, you (hopefully) know that any one of those—biases, selfishness, or poor communication—spell trouble. Sure, making employees happy doesn’t always mean you’re the good guy. But it shouldn’t be just about you, either.

Effective leaders know that supporting a team starts with identifying what each individual needs. And that requires empathy.

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How Empathy Can Identify What People Need

In 1943, the psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote a paper entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation.” In it, he proposed his Hierarchy of Needs—a mechanism to categorize motivation. It worked so well that it’s still commonly referenced in the business (and non-business) world today.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Want to leverage Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as a leader? Try this short course to see how the theory can be applied in practical work scenarios.

The pyramid of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, showing the 5 levels of needs: physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualization
iStock/ATINAT_FEI

In its original conception (more on that later), Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a pyramid of five levels. From bottom to top, these are separated into two tiers: lower-order and higher-order needs. Lower-order needs are more about physical survival, whereas higher-order needs are about emotional fulfillment.

Lower-order needs:

  • physiological needs
  • safety needs

Higher-order needs:

  • social needs
  • esteem needs
  • self-actualization needs

You can use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for self-reflection. Or, if you’re in a leadership position, you can use it to leverage empathy, think beyond your own experiences, and understand your team members on a deeper level. Beware: categorizing needs (especially other people’s needs) is tougher than it seems.

Consider this: one of your team members asks for permission to leave work early. When you ask why, they say they have to go buy baking soda.

Your immediate reaction is probably a suspicious squint. Leaving early to buy baking soda, of all things? Where’s the urgency in that?

Take a breath, think about Maslow’s Hierarchy, and apply some empathy.

“What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.”

Abraham Maslow

Physiological Needs

The base of Maslow’s hierarchy is simple: it’s everything you need to survive. Not just food, water, and shelter (though those are a pretty good start), but also things like a good night’s sleep. Meeting physiological needs gives you the basic ability to function.

Before you disregard the physiological level to explain the need for baking soda, consider this scenario:

Perhaps your team member went hiking over the weekend and stumbled through some poison oak. If so, they might be suffering a horrible, relentlessly itchy rash. They might even be allergic to over-the-counter medications, meaning they must resort to home remedies—like a baking soda paste. If so, their need to get their hands on some baking soda right now could, indeed, be a physiological need. Really, it’s a wonder they’ve stayed at work this long!

Safety Needs

Just above physiological needs are safety needs. Like that first foundation, they include the obvious: Are you safe from physical harm? From disease? Financial ruin? Do you have a job? If so, your safety needs are in good shape.

Could baking soda possibly fill a safety need? Unlikely, unless your coworker is rushing to extinguish a grease fire (in which case it might be better just to call the fire department).

Social Needs

Once lower-order physiological and safety needs are covered, the next thing people tend to seek out is other people. Friends, family, religious communities, clubs, and other groups fulfill the need for love and belonging.

Baking soda seems like an unlikely answer to a social need—or is it?

Maybe your team member is a single parent. Their child has a science fair tomorrow, and no one bought the key ingredient for the baking soda-and-vinegar volcano. If you deny your team member the chance to help their child, you may be denying a social need.

Esteem Needs

Just under the top of the pyramid are esteem needs—the need to feel special, appreciated, and respected. Self-esteem needs fall into this tier, as well. As RuPaul says, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” Amen.

You’re sure baking soda couldn’t impact esteem needs. But then you remember:

Your coworker is an aspiring baker, and they’re entering the county-wide Cookiepalooza Baking Competition tomorrow. Without baking soda, your team member’s cookies will be as flat as their esteem.

Self-actualization Needs

At the top of the hierarchy is self-actualization. This is where your career ambitions and dreams come in. Aspiring to meet self-actualization needs is how you find purpose, establish a personal mission, and reach your potential. Unlike the lower-order psychological and safety needs, self-actualization needs are highly tailored to you.

And yes, it’s not impossible that your team member needs to leave early for reasons related to self-actualization. They could be starting their own business with a patent for a baking soda-based cleaning product. Maybe tomorrow they’re pitching to investors. Who knows?

“It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”

Abraham Maslow

On the micro level, basic communication skills can unravel things like the baking soda mystery. But as a leader, you likely know that individual motivations are complex.

For that reason, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is best applied on a macro level. Effective leaders help people understand their overarching needs in order to fill deficiencies and achieve growth long term.

A man on stage ducks and frowns as the audience throws various objects at his head
If your esteem needs aren’t met, it can lead to real emotional consequences… Just look at this poor guy. | iStock/leremy

Deficiency vs. Growth Needs

Though there is a general tendency to move from the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to the top, life isn’t always so linear. It’s entirely possible to skip some levels, or even move up and down the pyramid. Leaders should be wary about thinking of the Hierarchy like a one-and-done checklist.

It’s also worth noting that self-actualization is a special kind of beast.

In addition to the lower-order and higher-order tiers, Maslow determined that the first four levels—physiological, safety, social, and esteem—can cause real problems when left unmet. If you have nothing to eat, you starve. If you feel rejected by the world or disrespected as a person, you face everything from severe depression to imposter syndrome.

On the other hand, failing to meet self-actualization needs doesn’t have a negative impact. That’s why Maslow identified this top need as a “growth” need.

Then, shortly before his death, he realized his theory was missing something important.

Self-Transcendence: The Forgotten Need in Maslow’s Hierarchy

Self-actualization is the pinnacle of Maslow’s original hierarchy, but it has one big problem with being “the end”: It never pushes beyond the self. Realizing this, Maslow began working out an addition to the hierarchy that connects the individual to a greater purpose.

He called that additional level “self-transcendence.”

For self-transcendence, we look beyond ourselves and aim to make—even embody—a greater impact on humanity. We stop thinking of ourselves as separate and solitary and start considering our role in the grand scheme of things. It’s not about you, but about the greater good.

For this, Maslow was ahead of his time. The way to reach self-transcendence is through many of the more “new age” trends we see today, such as mindfulness. It’s also reflected in the growing call for positive social impact in business. Making money is no longer enough, no matter how much you might’ve aspired to self-actualize by building a big business empire. Young entrepreneurs, in particular, look to leave something for future generations.

“In any given moment, we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety.”

Abraham Maslow

Lead through Empathy

If you want to become a more effective leader, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a crucial tool. It can help you learn to think with empathy and use your communication skills. Observe struggling team members, use empathy to form a hypothesis on their needs, then communicate to confirm if you’re thinking in the right direction.

Once you see that spark of motivation, think of what you can do then to guide your team member toward personal growth. The way you leverage soft skills like empathy and critical thinking can make a world of difference to someone’s career journey.

And just think, if your efforts help someone reach self-transcendence, that could have a ripple effect for the good of us all.

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