Employee Hierarchy of Needs, Part 1 of 3: Basic Needs

carin balance in river

The idea of a Hierarchy of Needs came from Abraham Maslow in 1943, when he published a paper titled, A Theory of Human Motivation. Maslow proposed the concept that humans are motivated to attain certain needs (basic, psychological, and self-fulfillment), and some needs are prioritized over other needs (basic needs must be met before fulfilling psychological needs, etc.).

A human’s most basic need is for physical survival: food, water, shelter, safety. Once the basic needs are addressed or fulfilled, the level above will motivate us next.

What are an employee’s basic needs in the workplace, and how do these needs relate to employee engagement?

First, let’s define employee engagement. Engaged employees are rare. According to Gallup, a research-based, global performance-management consulting company, only 15% of employees world wide are engaged. In my article How to Increase Engagement: Treat Your Employees like They Matter, I describe the many different definitions of employee engagement. They all revolve around a common theme: emotional commitment and attachment to one’s workplace and fellow employees. Engaged employees feel a profound connection and commitment to their company; they work with passion, they are loyal, and they are willing to go the extra mile.

According to Maslow’s concept of needs, the basic needs are physiological needs and safety needs. In the workplace, let’s replace physiological needs with workspace, and safety needs with security and stability.

Basic Needs


Workspace includes where we are and what physical items we have when we work each day. Do we have the appropriate items to get our job done, like a place to sit? Updated computers with updated software? Is the workspace a comfortable temperature? How about the noise levels?

workspaceWhile these considerations may seem simple, they are easy to overlook. I once had a job where the temperature swung from one extreme to the other. One day it was cold enough to wear a winter jacket all day, and the next it was so hot people began feeling faint.

If we are going to invest in hiring the right individual, why would we set them up in a workspace where they won’t be able to fully function or achieve our expectations? If someone joins our team and they don’t have a dedicated workspace, or the technology is too old or slow and it hinders their ability to do their job, will they feel valued? Probably not – if their place of employment cannot meet their basic workspace needs, it’s likely they will only accomplish the bare minimum to get by. If they don’t feel like they can do their job, it’s unlikely they can do their job well or feel a sense of pride or accomplishment about their job.


Once workspace issues have been addressed, we can focus on security and stability issues. This level addresses feeling safe in our jobs and has two features:

Security: work environment fosters a feeling of job security, and is free of threats of physical or emotional harm.

Stability: organizational and team stability.

first aidMost work environments are free from threats of physical harm, but what about emotional harm? A survey conducted in 2014 by Vital Smarts revealed that 96% of survey respondents have experienced bullying at work. 62% of those who experienced bullying at work saw bullies sabotage others’ work or reputations, 52% saw browbeating, threats, or intimidation, and 4% saw physical intimidation or assault. The Vital Smart team also noted how bullying in the workplace affects workplace costs:

Twenty percent of respondents said dealing with workplace bullies cost them 7-plus hours a week in lost time. That’s $8,800 in lost wages to those workers or their employers every year.

Money - stacks of coinsAn individual’s feeling of job security is also important. If you are constantly worried you might be fired at any moment, the chances of you being able to come in and do your best work are low. It’s hard to ensure job security for anyone; one way to help combat the anxiety associated with job security is to provide employees with positive feedback and gratitude. This positive reinforcement might help give your team the security they need to perform their jobs at their highest level. For more information about the benefits of gratitude in the workplace, check out my articles 4 Reasons Why You Should Express Gratitude Both In & Out of the Workplace and 3 Ways Gratitude Promotes a Culture of Engagement in the Workplace.

Turning our focus to stability, consider how much turnover your organization or department experiences. If an organization feels out of control, it’s likely employees also feel like their day-to-day tasks and duties are out of their control. If these things appear out of an employee’s control, they may feel like what they contribute to the company or department doesn’t matter. If someone feels like their contribution doesn’t matter, why would they take initiative, work with passion, or go the extra mile?

Connecting the DotsConnecting the Dots

For organizations, departments, or teams experiencing low employee engagement, the first opportunity for improvement is with your employee’s basic needs: workspace and security & stability.

Take a moment to consider whether your team, department, or company has a positive workspace and ideal working conditions for your employees, or anxiety regarding job security. Are employees confident about their job security both now and in the future? Have you noticed, or has an employee reported, a workplace bully that hasn’t been adequately addressed?

Thank you for taking the time to read my post! If you’re looking for ways to increase your organization’s level of employee engagement, please review my services here and contact me here.

This was originally posted on LinkedIn on January 19th, 2018. See the full post here.

Please check the second article in this series, Employee Hierarchy of Needs, Part 2 of 3: Psychological Needs.

*Credit to Zen Workplace and Health Links for the employee engagement hierarchical/framework concept.

How One Toxic Person Can Destroy Company Culture

toxic photo - poison

I saw someone once write on a social media post: as an employer, it’s hard to find someone who actually wants to work. No matter how much you praise them or do nice things for them they aren’t loyal to you in the end.

When I first read their comment, I cringed. As an employee, I wouldn’t want to work for someone with that type of mindset because I believe it sets them up for failure as an employer. If my employer believes I will not be loyal to them, no matter what they do, it makes me think they won’t do anything out of the ordinary to keep me around, which makes me feel less loyal to them. But, from an employer perspective, if you feel like you’ve been good to your employees and they leave anyway, how could you not feel this way?

On the other hand, as an employee, why is it so easy to remember the bad things (the bad bosses, the bad work situations, etc.) and so hard to focus on any of the good (or even okay) things?


What if I told you there is scientific evidence backing up why our brains focus on the negative aspects of employment more than the positive? By no means is this breaking news; in an article published in 2001, titled “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” researchers describe how humans and other animals may be evolutionarily wired to react this way:

From our perspective, it is evolutionarily adaptive for bad to be stronger than good. We believe that throughout our evolutionary history, organisms that were better attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and, consequently, would have increased probability of passing along their genes.

stacked papersTo make a point, the authors reviewed over 230 studies on the following topics: relationships, emotions, learning, neurological processes, child development, social support, information processing, memory, stereotypes, forming impressions, self-concept, feedback, and health to name a few.

The consistent factor between these 230+ studies revealed the impact of bad things is significantly worse than the power of good things. In other words: when one bad thing happens, five good things must happen to counteract the bad thing.

happy night - umbrella with lightsThe research suggests our desire to get out of a bad mood is stronger than our desire to get into a good one. Bad interactions, ones that feel unfriendly or conflictual, are interpreted in a stronger way. These bad interactions have bigger effects than equally friendly, nice, or harmonious ones. Thus, the bulk of our emotion regulation is directed at escaping from bad moods and negative emotions because bad moods and negative emotions have a stronger effect than good ones.

How does this apply to employees, bosses, managers, and organizations?

crazy papers flying

One bad apple can ruin it all. Bad things like negative emotions, abuse, dysfunctional acts (like intentionally slacking off), hostility, destructive relationships, and incompetence can ruin organizations striving to incorporate civility, competence, effort, and other kinds of “goodness” into their environment and culture. What can we do about this?


As an employee, we must try to focus on the positive. Increasing our number of positive interactions will help us defeat the negative interactions. The researchers suggested it is possible for good to triumph over bad by sheer numbers. Many good events (at least five) can overcome the psychological effects of a single bad event.

happy gratefulUsing techniques from positive psychology, such as expressing gratitude can help us focus on positive interactions and experiences. Remember: a little kindness goes a long way.

We must also be self-aware. When employees are not self-aware, conflict in the workplace can be toxic and destructive. We need to take a conscious look at how we express ourselves at work and how we interact with others.

QuestionMost of the time, conflict is based on some underlying fear and is an issue of interpersonal, psycho-emotional dynamics. If we are self-aware, we can ask ourselves why we react a certain way, and if this reaction is supportive or limiting to our team, department, and organization. If we are honest with ourselves, this self-awareness and insight will allow us to view and improve the way we communicate and interact with others.

When we are self-aware, and those we work with are self-aware, workplace conflict can be minimal and constructive.

Bosses, managers, and organizations:

As someone in a leadership or management position, we must try to overpower the bad with good. This involves expressing gratitude to our employees on a regular basis and constantly assessing and evaluating our employees’ level of engagement.

When it comes to stopping a bad apple or a toxic employee, the first obvious thing to do is not hire them in the first place. However, this can be hard to do even with multiple rounds of interviews.

guard & protect

Dr. Robert Sutton gives a few suggestions on how we can defeat the toxicity in his article, “How a Few Bad Apples Ruin Everything.”

  • Screen employees in realistic job conditions. Bring candidates in for a day or two and give them a short job to accomplish. Watch not only their technical skills, but also their personality. How do they deal with setbacks? Do they know when to ask for help and to give others help? Is the candidate the kind of person they want to work with? Candidates with interpersonal weaknesses may be screened out using this process.
  • The best organizations make explicit their intolerance for bad apples; they spell out which behaviors are unacceptable in the workplace and act decisively to prevent and halt them.
  • There are times, of course, when an organization can’t—or won’t—remove a destructive personality. Maybe the person is a star as well as a bad apple, for instance, or is otherwise crucial to the operation. In such cases, leaders might try to use coaching, warnings and incentives to curb the toxic employee’s behavior. Another tactic is to physically isolate the bad apple.
  • Beware: Leaders who believe destructive superstars are “too important” to fire often underestimate the damage they can do.

Connecting the dots - 2
Connecting the Dots

Scientific evidence shows we are wired to focus on the bad instead of the good, which is why it is so easy for one toxic person to ruin a company’s attempt at instilling and promoting a culture of engagement.

From an individual standpoint, we should try to consciously focus on the positive and increase our self-awareness. From a managerial or organizational perspective, we need to openly value our employees and we should not tolerate toxic behavior. We need to clearly spell out unacceptable behaviors and their consequences, and we need to be willing to fight the bad so we may protect our employees from its destructive properties.

Thank you for taking the time to read my post! If you’re looking for ways to increase your organization’s level of employee engagement, please review my services here and contact me here.

This was originally posted on LinkedIn on November 9th, 2017. See the full post here.