This is a three-part series in employee motivation designed to explore aspects of higher-order motivation for business managers. 

"I wish I knew how to better motivate my employees."

 I usually hear this sentence whispered in a hushed tone at the end of a presentation by a business owner while I’m stuffing my face with leftover salad at the end of a lunch presentation. Usually the complaint is that employees start off great, but their performance and excitement for the job wanes and is replaced with complacency and apathy. More extreme cases include incidents of mismanagement of funds, workplace incivility or even workplace violence.

As the economy recovers, so too do employers. The unemployment rate is hovering at 5%, according to the BLS. Jobs in healthcare, professional and business services and financial services are on the rise. In September, 191,000 jobs were created according to the Department of Labor. However, while unemployment remains low, many jobs have not returned in all sectors, replaced with technology or improved workplace efficiency. But, still, at the heart remains the most expensive and most dynamic asset: employees.

Instead of asking how employers can better motivate their employees, they should be asking how to better meet their needs. We need a more mature view of employee motivation centered on meeting needs and providing opportunities rather than the stick-and-carrot approach. Meaning, dangling a $.50 raise in front of an hourly employee isn’t going to do much for their long-term motivation and organizational loyalty. So, what works?

In 1943 Abraham Maslow published an journal article entitled, A Theory of Human Motivation. Since then this theory is standard lecture fare in all psychology classes. It crosses over to management when applied to employees. I reworked each of the five sections to better apply to business situations. In Maslow’s original theory, the lowest order need–psychological–means that a person’s most basic needs such as food, water and oxygen must be satisfied first. You can see this in any episode of Survivor when alliances get thrown out the door, along with common decency, when people are hungry. If we are not hungry, thirst or starved for oxygen then we look for our second set of needs to be satisfied–safety. We crave a safe place to live in a stable environment. If my life is in turmoil, I tend to care less about personal relationships until my life has stabilized. That’s why in times of crisis, when their lives are upended, they retreat into the safety of what they know and ride out the storm. If those needs are met then we look for relatedness needs (Alderfer, 1969) to be met such as having successful and positive relationships with family, friends and community members along with their approval. These are belonging and esteem needs and they are tricky. Because others are involved and we seek to both belong with and be approved by them, we put our needs in the hands of others. This is how to get along with others and get along with myself in the company of others. Finally, if we are good in those areas we seek opportunities to better ourselves, learn new hobbies, advance our educational goals and grow deeper in our spiritual walks. Once you have achieved the growth stage, the top of the pyramid, you do not necessarily get to live their full-time. We slip and slide up and down the pyramid over the course of our lives. We can be enjoying a fulfilling life in which we are actively pursuing higher education and learning new hobbies and BOOM we get laid off. Suddenly we are plunged into looking for job security as we try to fulfill our need for safety.

This brings me to employers asking how to motivate their employees. At its essence, motivation is completely voluntary. Just like you cannot make a toddler poop on command–they have to want to do it themselves–you cannot make an employee be motivated on command. Let’s look at how Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can translate into better understanding employee needs and, therefore, how we can best support them.


I have replaced Maslow’s traditional need examples in the same categories with examples from business situations. The lowest order need–psychological–translates into basic needs on the job. An environment that is too hot or too cold will paralyze motivation. Imagine working the summer in a factory that is 100+ degrees or in a Minnesota office during the winter with a broken thermostat and no heat. When my basic physical needs are not met, it is very hard to be productive, not to mention happy. If I am working a job that does not pay enough to cover my basic needs–rent, food, medical care–I will not be motivated beyond the bare minimum needed to keep my (probably) temporary job. I have worked in a cubical farm with the air vent blowing cold air on my head and at a racetrack in the middle of a Bakersfield summer with heat waves wafting up to us concessionaires from the track. Both were miserable and demotivating.

Employers, with regard to the basic needs of your employees, how are the working conditions at your company? Does an employee complain of back strain often? Consider a stand up desk or better chair. Can those thermostats be adjusted or keyboards be upgraded? Are your employees physically comfortable in order to fulfill their basic physical needs at work? Can they take restroom breaks when needed or pump breast milk every few hours in private?


Once the basic needs are relatively satisfied, employees need to feel safe on the job. An environment free from harassment, inappropriate jokes and even the prying eaves-dropping ears of the office gossip fit into this category. Employees without adequate or affordable healthcare often feel dissatisfied or distracted by the lack of a safety net. As soon as your company announces budget cuts or the whisper of a layoff is uttered, expect employees to stop focusing on improving their quality or being creative and, instead, hunkering down to do the most basic tasks. To what is there to aspire if constriction of the workforce is eminent? Expect a period of demotivation or even paralysis after a large company overhaul, even by the “survivors” of the cut.


If both the basic and safety aspects are fulfilled, as many employees experience, now motivation rests in the social and esteem areas. How do your work groups get along? Do you hear murmurs of complaint that are ignored by upper management? Do not ignore those early indicators of social disharmony. Are certain people excluded from teams or work groups? Is an overbearing supervisor managing with a heavy hand, essentially squashing any attempt at participatory leadership? There is a fine line between pushing people and pushing people out the door. The social aspect of motivation is perhaps the quickest way to make or break team motivation. Peer pressure is much more effective at motivating individuals to do better, be more creative, and set bigger goals. Letting employees participate in organizational decisions will go a long way toward increased motivation.


If you are doing the social aspect of motivation well, employees will inevitably benefit in the esteem area of motivation. Want to encourage employees to take more initiative? Give them more responsibility. Remember, however, when delegating tasks you must also delegate the authorityresponsibility and accountability for tasks. There is nothing more demoralizing to esteem than to delegate an important task with conditions and strings attached. In order for employees to develop decision making skills and motivation as a byproduct, they must also have the appropriate amount of power and authority to enact decisions. When employees do a good (or even marginal) job, be sure to recognize them. Perhaps the company did not ultimately act on their recommendation? Recognize, then, their dedication to the task, innovative solution, or leadership choices. If done well, esteem leads to a thirst for growth.


There are people who learn because they are required to and there are people who love to learn. I’d rather hire someone with less experience, but a thirst for new experiences and knowledge. Natural curiosity cannot be faked or programmed, but it can be cultivated. How do you cultivate a love of learning among your employees? What opportunities do you provide for continued development even outside of your organization? The vast majority of businesses in the United States are small–with 100 employees or less. This means if you work in a small company there may not be much room for advancement. The traditional carrot-on-a-stick promotion as motivation is irrelevant. Growth comes in many stages: educational advancement, lateral moves, spiritual or fun pursuits, personal or financial growth. Providing opportunities for your employees to be better people will naturally cause them to be better employees. 

I challenge employers to think of motivation as need-meeting instead of why won’t my employees do more? Instead of a carrot-and-stick approach to motivation, consider meeting your employees needs all the way up the pyramid.