When is the last time you had the good fortune to study human motivation and employee engagement?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is still extremely valuable: from turning around terrible morale and enhancing employee motivation and productivity, to fully engaging your employees, and inspiring them to peak performance.

This blog is intended to be a great little education (or reminder) and to offer a fairly comprehensive, robust, integrated, do-it-yourself program for employee motivation, engagement, and retention:

  1. The five levels and how they work;
  2. Lots of concrete examples (tactics) at each level.

Advanture’s leadership development programs take leaders well beyond Maslow, but Maslow’s hierarchy can be a great place to start, and take your first four or five big steps forward.

Note: There is some overlap between the different levels. I have given Maslow’s work my own spin. And I completely ignore any claims to universality—a useless debate for me. I am just mapping out some practical applications of Maslow’s work for employee engagement in the workplace, and we can all benefit from the reminder that motivation works in different ways and at different levels.

Maslow 1

Here are Maslow’s five levels of needs, starting with the first and “lowest” level.

1. Physiological needs:

Fulfilling basic, human physiological needs—survival and safety needs.

Here are a variety of ways managers can ensure these needs are taken care of in the workplace:

  • Fair (living) wages & benefits
  • Work-life balance: protection from burn-out, freedom from excessive stress…
  • Access to food, water, washrooms…
  • Quality air / ventilation, safe temperature, etc.

Generally, this is part of running a clean ship. You need to take care of these things before you can move up the chain to the higher motivators. This lower level motivator is not a deep motivator, i.e., we are not talking about inspiring employees here but removing various kinds of dissatisfaction and distractions that get in the way—that stop us from doing the higher level work. If you have any problems at this level, clean them up before attempting to do the more exciting and powerful work at the higher levels.

2. Safety & Security:

Fulfilling the human need for physical and emotional security and safety. “I am safe here; I am free of constant worry, stress, and fear; I am free to work hard and contribute as a free and independent human being.”

Here are a variety of ways managers can ensure these needs are taken care of in the workplace:

  • Protecting basic human rights and human dignity—dignity is non-negotiable
  • Freedom from discrimination, harassment, racism, bullying
  • Safe, hospitable environment, facilities, work tools, equipment…
  • No favouritism; fair policies applied fairly; not having your job threatened every day
  • Confidentiality for private employee information
  • Safety training, emergency support systems, access to First Aid
  • Employee Assistance Program
  • Constructive criticism vs. punitive, condescending, patronizing, belittling, personal attacks
  • Functioning open door policy: being ready, willing, and able to listen to employee concerns, care about your employee and their concerns, be an employee champion

Along with the first level (physiological needs), this is part of running a clean ship. You need to take care of these things before you can move up the chain to the higher motivators. We are not talking about inspiring employees here but removing dissatisfactions and distractions.

Good work at these first two levels helps you earn the right to ask employees to work hard, believe in your vision, join your cause, make a difference, care about your customers, and become part of the solution.

3. Social:  

Fulfilling the human need for community, belonging, camaraderie, collaboration, and shared purpose. “I belong; I am part of something bigger than myself; I am contributing to a community; there are people helping me and looking out for me; I have someone (a team or community) to help; I am trusted and respected.”

Here are some ways managers can help employees fulfil their needs at this level:

  • Shared purpose, common goals, alignment
  • Pride in company and work
  • Friendship, camaraderie, teamwork
  • Training in teamwork and collaborative practice
  • Team training (on anything) and offsite team planning sessions (make them productive)
  • Team or company events, games, activities, draws—both for fun & for business
  • Shared facilities, e.g., lunchroom, bulletin boards, newsletters, forums for dialogue, places and spaces to connect (virtual and in person)…

We are now in the realm of higher level motivators, i.e., actions that can inspire deeper and more sustainable forms of motivation, productivity, and employee retention. Everyone is a little different in terms of what motivates them most, but who can deny that it is motivating to have good colleagues and to feel connected to a good team or community.

North American society is very individualizing and so it is not surprising that this motivator is third from the top on Maslow’s list. In cultures with deep community roots, this motivator can be at the top of the list. Again, this is a debate we don’t have to have here. The “social” is a powerful motivator regardless of where it falls in the top three.

Connect this to your own experience: Have you ever been part of a great team, a strong community of practice, a great group of loyal friends? How did that feel; and how did it affect your morale, effort, and productivity in that group? Conversely, did you ever belong to a dysfunctional team: silos, turf wars, egos, defensiveness, finger pointing, disloyalty, etc.? How did that make you feel; and how did it affect your morale, effort, and productivity in that group?

4. Esteem:

Fulfilling the human need for pride, respect, recognition, validation, and self-esteem. “I am here; people value my efforts and recognize my contribution; I am trusted and respected; I have dignity and self-respect.”

Here are some ways managers can help employees fulfil their needs at this level:

  • Praise, recognition, appreciation, and reward—for both effort and achievement
  • Responsibility, empowerment, promotions
  • Choice assignments and increased responsibility
  • Positive / constructive feedback
  • Coaching / mentoring support—“We care about your success; you are valuable; we are investing in you”
  • Anything that demonstrates your trust and respect for employees, e.g., keeping employees in the loop on company and industry changes; leaders communicating  their development goals to direct reports…

5. Self-Actualization:

Fulfilling the human need for independence, autonomy, creativity, and self-expression. “I have a hand in my own fate; I am living my dreams; I am expressing my natural creativity; I am developing my gifts and achieving my potential; I am a creator (active) and not merely a consumer (passive order taker, cog in the machine).”

Having this need at the top of the hierarchy perhaps over-emphasizes Western notions of individuality. Nevertheless, this is incredibly important to many people, and should be top three on anyone’s list of motivators anyway.

Here are a variety of ways managers can help employees fulfill needs at this level in order to create deep and sustainable employee engagement:

  • Enhance employee involvement & participation—make employees part of the solution
  • Give employees meaningful challenges, responsibilities, and opportunities—a meaningful role to play in the company
  • Opportunities for self-development, learning, growth, training…
  • Give employees opportunities to voice their ideas and choose their own projects
  • Give employees some say in decisions that affect them
  • Help employees take ownership for their jobs and the success of the company
  • Nurture employee initiative and entrepreneurial / intrapreneurial behavior
  • Create enjoyment and fun in the workplace


How it works: 

Fulfilling basic needs does not inspire deep motivation but removes displeasure / pain / distractions. Basic level needs have to be fulfilled before we can seek higher level of satisfaction / fulfillment.

A well-rounded employee engagement & retention program (or quality of work-life program) would seek to ensure needs at all levels are more than fulfilled, i.e., should provide opportunities for fulfilling needs at all levels.

Keeping the purpose in mind will help you do a much better job and get far more out of your employee engagement efforts. We don’t just engage employees to feel good. Proactively use these tactics in a way that helps you enhance employee morale, effort, motivation, productivity, and retention. And use those very objectives (morale, effort, motivation, productivity, and retention) as metrics for your efforts.

DIY Project:  

Identify where you are in your engagement efforts; if you have problems at the bottom levels, assess those problems and clean them up first.

Then work your way up the hierarchy looking for ways to satisfy needs / provide opportunities at each level.

Look especially for things the employees like (i.e., to which they respond positively) and that you are good at delivering (i.e., draw on your unique gifts as a leader or organization).

Finally, once your workplace is in good shape (solid practices and results at each level), identify which practices can really help you make your mark as a leader (and organization) and then work hard to be great in those areas.


Advanture offers world class leadership development programs in five master leadership practices: (i) employee engagement and retention; (ii) coaching and managing talent; (iii) leading change; (iv) team leadership, facilitative leadership, collaborative practice; and (v) aligning culture with strategy—managing culture for competitive advantage.

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