Linking Maslow’s Hierarchy to Employee Engagement

June 1, 2021

Linking Maslow’s Hierarchy to Employee Engagement

Most of us are familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs and the theory that until we achieve and maintain the lower level needs, we will not be motivated to pursue higher level needs in the pyramid. While exploring the concept of employee engagement and observing which initiatives work and to what extent, it becomes easy to see a parallel. 

Income and Benefits

We seldom discuss pay and benefits as employee engagement initiatives because they are assumed to already be at an appropriate level, otherwise the job would remain vacant. Frederick Herzberg’s (1923-2000) Two Factor Theory of Motivation informs us that there is a certain set of factors that will not necessarily motivate us…unless they are removed. We do not say “thank you” to our boss when we receive our direct deposit on payday, but we would become very motivated to storm the castle if our pay was not received when expected. 

Most people heavily weigh pay and health benefits before accepting an offer for a new job. HR professionals understand pay- or benefit-related conversations must be thoroughly planned and handled with extreme care. But, from an organizational perspective, employers are seeking so much more than to simply pay warm bodies to sit in their seats. 

Employers are seeking high levels of discretionary effort (employee engagement) to create better business results. As a result, compensation packages need to go beyond the traditional offerings of salary and health benefits. A strong total compensation package should encompass bonus incentives for superior performance and include developmental opportunities for improvement because the best workers are typically motivated to continuously learn and grow. If they do not have access to it from their workplaces, they will seek it elsewhere. Total compensation should be continuously monitored, not only to attract top talent from the outside, but to appropriately motivate, engage, reward and retain key incumbent talent. 

Environmental Comfort and Safety

Safety often comes into consideration after pay and benefits as evidenced by the fact that many workers choose to accept some level of risk in exchange for employment. As the recent pandemic showed us, many employers experienced an entirely new safety focus beyond accidental injury or deliberate workplace violence and into the realm of airborne contagion. Some professions will continue to exist entirely within the realm of some form of danger. Employers will hopefully undertake risk-mitigating measures to make jobs as safe as possible. Workers often remain in dangerous jobs because they find meaning in their contribution. Without believing in the value of their contribution and in the absence of competitive pay, benefits or other rewards, workers will leave because it simply is not worth it for them to stay. 

Employers will next focus on providing more comfortable work environments, to the extent that comfort facilitates more productive work. Environmental comfort includes more than ergonomics. Employers and leaders must strive to provide psychological safety to enable workers to bring their authentic selves to work, whether it be inside an office or via a virtual setting. When workers feel comfortable and safe expressing their authentic selves, they can not only contribute at a higher level, but also enjoy rewarding connections with colleagues and customers. These meaningful connections with colleagues and bosses contribute to higher levels of engagement and retention. 

Peers and Boss

Next, employers can further explore relationship building initiatives to encourage more rewarding peer and manager relationships. They can go beyond the traditional departmental team-building exercises and focus instead on individual interests to encourage cross-functional participation and relationship building. These cross-functional relationships are the ones that ultimately drive business success. 

Development and Accomplishment

By leveraging these stronger relationships, employers can provide opportunities for development by providing training, facilitating mentoring relationships and giving workers an opportunity to perform stretch assignments in line with their developmental interests. Employers must be mindful to celebrate milestones and acknowledge accomplishments. Allow workers to take pride in their work and show them how it makes a difference. Talented workers in all industries and professions want to feel passionate about the work they do. After becoming more seasoned in their roles, these workers will then be motivated to give back by serving as mentors themselves. Mentoring is a key element to learning and development, which is a win-win for all involved. 


What is most interesting is to see the downward movement of “values” in the pyramid. During the 2008 financial crisis, there was not as much talk about “the mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important” (a key Gallup survey question used for assessing worker engagement). Most workers were in survival mode, with the goal of simply being employed. Traditionally thought of as a “nice to have” when choosing a new job, working for an organization whose purpose and values align with our own is becoming more of a necessity than ever before. We see survey after survey showing that culture and values matter more than compensation. Though, I would argue that compensation in this survey context is not referring to a living wage, but rather a rate of pay that is higher than necessary for an individual to meet their financial needs. Very few can willingly forgo a living wage in exchange for meaningful work. Every worker needs to survive before they can thrive. 

However, what does seem clear when speaking to hiring managers and recruiters is that workers are far more inquisitive about organizational values than ever before. Organizations are proudly displaying their status as Certified B Corporations as part of their brand. Millennials, the current largest demographic in the workplace, indicate a strong preference for employers with values in alignment with their own. Gen Z (born between 1995 and 2012) reports an even stronger preference. Certified B Corps are positioned well to win the competition for top talent. While these are strong engagement indicators for two generational demographics, it is important to remember the other generations in the workforce and their motivators. Boomers enjoy sharing their knowledge with others. Generation X shows a particular affinity for individual contribution. However, there is no one cookie-cutter approach to employee engagement, not even when controlling for generation. Each worker is a unique individual who may share more traits and preferences with a group outside of their own. The key is to learn about workers as the unique individuals they are and effectively motivate them by appealing to their specific drivers. 

Surveys across various industries show that highly engaged employees are more focused and have highly satisfied customers. In a sales environment, this increases the bottom line. In a healthcare environment, focused and engaged employees make fewer errors. This results in healthier patients. In a manufacturing environment, focus and engagement result in fewer product defects. 

Employers who identify their organizational values and articulate how they make a positive impact on society are at an advantage when selecting top talent and retaining star performers. Employers who go beyond printing and posting value statements by demonstrating them through the actions of their leaders will be the big winners of the discretionary effort of engaged employees and achieve stronger business results. 

The Authors: 

Susan Russo, SHRM-SCP, is an HR consultant and a SHRM Test Prep Instructor through Rutgers University.