Motivating employees: forget the hierarchy of needs

Why Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is less useful than the simple trio of autonomy, relatedness and competence

You’ve probably heard of Maslow’s heirarchy of needs: the theory that, until you have shelter and sustenance you won’t be able to achieve friendship or inspiration. The theory has been extensively utilised in management, where a lack of staff motivation reflects more basic problems which need to be solved.

That’s not accurate, argues motivational author Susan Fowler, writing in the Harvard Business Review. She claims that “individuals can experience higher-level motivation anytime and anywhere”. Instead of a hierarchy of needs, she points to three equally important ‘universal psychological needs’ required for inspiration, which we’ve summarised.

Autonomy
Employees need to feel they have choices, and that they have some involvement in deciding a course of action. To promote this, Fowler advises you to present goals and deadlines as essential to people’s own success, and not relying on external motivation, whether that be competitions or putting sustained pressure on staff members.

Relatedness
“Leaders have a great opportunity to help people derive meaning from their work”, explains Fowler. Doing so relies on you allowing employees to talk about their feelings about particular tasks, and finding out what those values are, so you can align their personal values with company culture.

Competence
Not only do employees need to feel confident taking on day-to-day tasks, they need to feel like they’re building their skillset. Fowler insists leaders must show real commitment to learning – including protecting professional development budgets from cutbacks, to reassure employees, whilst goals should be driven by learning, not just results.

Read Fowler’s original article on the Harvard Business Review website
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