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How Maslow’s Needs Theory can drive employee motivation

How Maslow’s Needs Theory can drive employee motivation

Motivating employees remains a relevant and intricate topic many leaders deal with on a daily basis. Employees perform best if they are intrinsically motivated, which means they are interested in the task at hand, and can engross themselves in it. Most companies traditionally use extrinsic motivation factors such as incentives and rewards to stimulate performance, however this creates a gap between what is assumed to motivated staff and their actual needs.

The common factor is that both individuals and companies want to be productive.

Companies are doing their best, but perhaps not enough, to understand what motivates people, with the knowledge that people relate differently to certain stimuli. Then the question of how to motivate people arises, be it through rewards, incentives, praise or feedback. The conscientious manager and leader has most likely read books, done courses, browsed the internet, or experimented with the theories and models that have been developed, without finding one which is the ideal magic fit. This will have made them realise that every theory has an argument for and against it, and reason why it could not work in their team.

Let’s look at a brief historical synopsis of motivation; starting with the ancient Greek philosophers and weaving through the more recent development until the present day.

The Greeks believed that motivation was a hedonic philosophy where we behave in a certain way to forego pain or increase pleasure. In the current world, we refer to this as instant gratification where we either buy or consume things to get an immediate but short-lived feeling of joy, pleasure and happiness. Later, scientists believed motivation to be instinct driven meaning that it’s in our natural DNA to be motivated and pursue goals. Other researchers regarded motivation as reward-based, where our past experiences reinforce our current behaviours. This often arises from our upbringing and previous encounters with motivation which develops our motivational patterns and beliefs. In addition, our social and cultural environment influences our motivation as we want to fit in and follow the trend of other people’s positive behaviour.

There is some truth in each of the arguments as to what motivates a person while also highlighting the complexity of motivation. However, all the above theories focus on the individual and not on the company and how its infrastructure could potentially enhance and encourage an employee to be more motivated in their work.

Maslow’s Needs Theory requires little introduction and is the most popular amongst the many management and business motivation theories. Maslow, being a motivational content visionary, was searching for basic factors that explain human behaviour as well as what makes a person take action to accomplish goals. The principle of Maslow’s Needs Theory is based on three factors:

  1. The hierarchical levels are arranged from lowest to highest need.
  2. A person only moves up from one level to the next if the previous level has been satisfied.
  3. Unsatisfied needs stimulate motivation and the desire to fulfil the need.


The Needs Theory is tailored for an individual to satisfy their needs; starting with the basic physical needs and moving up the pyramid until the self-actualisation level.

But what happens if we move from an individual level and overlay Maslow’s Needs Theory into an organisational setting? Would the physical level have to be fulfilled first before we can progress an employee’s motivation to the next level?

Let’s explore what Maslow’s Needs Theory would look like in the life of an employee:


Maslow motivation



Are companies and employees perhaps out of alignment, where the company is focusing on a higher motivation level, with employees’ basic motivation needs not being met? Could this concept be a way forward for leaders and managers to determine what matters to an employee, and ensure that the basic motivation level is met, to shift the employee upwards from there? It may sound far-fetched, but it may close the current motivation gap and provide management with an applied tool with which to experiment.


Five ways to motivate employees

Five ways to motivate employees

A numb form of attention on the task at hand, a loss of commitment to the outcome, and a reduced effort and a drop in productivity. Does this sound familiar?

These are just a few of the characteristics of amotivation – a place where neither internal nor external drivers can push our actions towards reaching a goal. If you or your employees have experienced amotivation or a milder version, you will know that the impact of this can be detrimental to company outcomes and employee well-being.

Poor employee motivation has been associated with reduced productivity, poor outcomes and an increased risk of psychological dysfunction and job dissatisfaction. However, the workplace is a challenging environment for maintaining motivation, as many managers will know.

Having a clearer understanding of the types of motivation, their benefits, and the ways in which to build it, could be just what you need to shape the healthy, happy and successful team and business that you are looking for.

Unpacking Motivation: Why Money is Not Enough

The workplace is a complex environment and it’s not always easy to understand human motivation. The main reason for this is that there are two types of motivation:

  • Controlled Motivation: this is when our behaviours are performed because of external pressures. This can be positive – for recognition and reward, or negative-for meeting demands, fear of rejection or being fired.
  • Autonomous Motivation: this is when our behaviours are driven from our own volition, either for the pure joy of the activity or for the perceived value that activity provides us.

In the workplace, there is an inherent understanding that work is done for remuneration. Employees are paid for their time, efforts and outcomes, which implies that the motivation behind working is inherently external. This becomes complicated when managers see motivation dwindle, and want to provide another form of financial incentive to get motivation back in their employees. The truth however is that humans require much more than money to be motivated, engaged and satisfied.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943) proposed that we have basic needs which require satisfaction before we can experience physical and psychological health. This reputed thinking was built into the Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a comprehensive theory of human motivation. When it comes to motivation, SDT proposes three basic needs which drive our behaviour:

  • Autonomy: our desire to be independent and have control of our circumstances
  • Competence: our desire for mastery and skill development
  • Relatedness: the need to feel connected and belong to a social group

It is therefore clear to see why money alone cannot satisfy our basic psychological needs and provide the motivation necessary to build an engaged team of employees.

The Benefits of Autonomous versus Controlled Motivation

In order for employees to be, and stay, engaged and committed to their work, they require motivation. In the workplace, there are inherent external drivers which guide people to perform, and it is common practice for many managers to further feed into controlled motivation through creating incentives, rewards and mitigating demands. However, research shows that when there is a greater ratio of autonomous motivation to controlled motivation, employees are more persistent, have increased performance and show greater creativity and innovation.

Other benefits of autonomous motivation include:

  • Increased psychological well-being
  • Increased job satisfaction
  • Increased work engagement
  • Increased organisational commitment

But how can you increase autonomous motivation while still reaching the end goal and meeting deadlines?

The truth is that once employees feel that they are progressing in their career (Competence), are supported to make decisions for which they can take ownership (Autonomy), and feel that they belong to the team (Relatedness), they will feel driven about their work, and will experience satisfaction while reaching the goals of the organisation.

Five ways to increase autonomous employee motivation

Motivation can be a difficult challenge for managers, especially when employee productivity is low. However, with these approaches, managers can begin to build autonomous motivation rather than creating greater controls and external pressures for employees in the hopes of reaching outcomes.

  • Be an example

As the manager, you are an example of the company’s culture and systems. If you choose to take a more transformational leadership approach to get your employees motivated, you will notice the same shift in yourself. Find what it is that drives your passion and perseverance in your work, take ownership of what you would like to happen and run with it. And lastly, allow your employees to build an emotional relationship with you – when you belong so will they.

  • Inspire

Offer positive stories of your own or others’ success. Be clear and communicate the values and mission of the company, thus building inspiration and bringing alignment of your employees’ values to the company as a whole. When people are in concordance with the values of the company, they will automatically gain a greater sense of commitment and become more intrinsically motivated to reach the strategic outcomes of the company.

  • Reward efforts not outcomes

This approach can be challenging in the workplace as success is driven by outputs. However, taking a mastery over performance stance when looking at employee productivity can help to develop a greater sense of competence. In turn, building employees to feel a sense of mastery before the task is even completed. This will increase autonomous motivation as the task is being performed for the joy of it rather than the perceived consequences of delivery.

  • Intellectually Stimulate

Despite what you may believe, people like challenges. Everyone enjoys a walk in the park, but the greater desire to learn and master new skills will eventually outweigh ease. Being a manager comes with a great responsibility to mediate job demands to get the “sweet spot” for your staff. This is an ongoing process; however, if there is the opportunity for employees to learn, develop and master new skills, they will not only satisfy their need for competence, but will feel a greater sense of commitment to the future of the job.

  • Support Collective Enthusiasm

There are two main areas which affect an employee’s sense of job satisfaction – job demands and job resources. As the manager, however, there can be little flexibility in mitigating the job demands, and therefore a shift in perceived job resources can be a vital role to play for your employees. It is basic physics – resources need to outweigh demands in order for success to be enabled. When employees feel supported, individually as well as part of a team, their psychological resources for success increase which reduces the impact of job demands on energy and well-being.

In Closing

People spend at least 33% of the week at work, doing what they were hired to do. If employees are demotivated this can become a draining exercise, for the individual, the team and company. While motivation in the grander sense is important, when we begin to unpack it, we see that having autonomous, intrinsic motivation serves us greater than that of controlled, extrinsic motivation. Therefore, if improved, sustainable motivation is needed in your team, autonomous motivation is highly necessary and can be developed.

The five approaches offered above provide a springboard to start driving success and satisfaction in your team. Where will you start?


Motivation is not only up to the leader

Motivation is not only up to the leader

Motivating employees is an art and a science that causes despair for leaders. Motivating a person to commit and complete a task because they want to as opposed to because they have to, brings about completely different performance results. Different motivation theories have been developed that provide us with some insight as to what motivates people. The scope is wide and varies from fulfilling a need, achieving a goal, being recognised, receiving more responsibility, acquiring financial rewards, and strengthening one’s self-efficacy.

Reading through the list, one might want them all. That’s where it starts to become complex, because each of the things require different behaviours from both the leader and the organisation to stimulate motivation. In addition, we have primary motivation drivers such as receiving feedback and recognition, and secondary motivators like building self-efficacy. The secondary motivators are nice-to-haves, but not must-haves. Each employee has a different motivation make-up and leaders must remember and stimulate these all the time. Not an easy job!

We often focus solely on the individual employee when speaking about motivation, but the organisation as a whole also plays a significant role. People value fairness, equality and justice, and breaking these is very often a key demotivating factor that is overlooked. Inequality causes employees’ extreme dissatisfaction and emotional tension which has a link to motivation and performance. Inequality is a psychological state that arises when employees compare themselves to others. Comparison is a natural human behaviour that we engage in all the time, or more than is good for us. On the other hand, fairness relates to the distribution of rewards and the procedure by which rewards are allocated. A discrepancy, even if not intended, creeps in when reward policies or employee performances are not transparent or fairly substantiated. For example, employees with salary structures are not equally aligned because of tenure, but the same level of skill and qualification or benefits that were present at the time of employment have subsequently fallen away.

A clear case of distribution injustice is experienced by the employee, and is fuelled by inequality when comparing themselves to others. The demotivation that arises is based on a negative rewards experience that might be labelled as purposeful or intentional. If the situation is not addressed, the employee’s behaviour will change to either:

  1. Increasing input contribution with the aim of increasing productivity value and reward
  2. Changing output by seeking additional rewards from the work
  3. Withdrawing by being late or absent
  4. Permanently leaving the organisation

All forms of injustice and inequality have a direct impact on job satisfaction, job performance, engagement, and employee motivation. Organisations as a whole can support and assist leaders to manage employee motivation in an inspiring way.