Maslow & Me: How Basic Needs Affect Work Performance [Part 1 of 3]
Updated: Aug 12
Precursor: This article is the first in a three-part series focused on how Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs comes into play in the workplace. It highlights my own life experiences and how my performance, perspective, and priorities have changed based on which needs of mine were or were not being met.
Where I was
Several years back, I was seeking self-actualization. I was at the top of Maslow's pyramid and I felt like I was on top of the world. I was working in a world-famous organization known for its culture and employee experience and I preached their glory. I had more than I ever thought I would have in life and I felt lucky beyond my wildest dreams. I was responsible for an organizational-wide, multi-year initiative and trusted to make it happen. I had all the workplaces benefits you read about in articles of great places to work and I was making more money than I ever had (and probably ever will). My job was mandatory and vital, so I knew I had job security for years to come.
Not only were all my needs met, but they were all exceeded. I was living somewhere safe and comfortable that I could afford because of my new salary upon getting the job. I had responsibility that gave me purpose and meaning - something that inspired me to get out of bed every day so I could make the world better. On top of that, I was given utmost trust to do that work. I was given the reigns on several big projects and became the "go-to person" for several areas. People knew who I was and came to me to solve problems that I was considered the resident expert of. I had a great team of people who cared about me and my success. I could lean on them for guidance and support in both work and life.
I was at a company focused on culture and truly believed I was a shining example of what that culture was supposed to be. I worked hard and played hard. Between implementing a company-wide initiative, I would join my peers for dance practice for our on-stage performance of something silly and ridiculous at the next company gathering. I hosted talent shows and starred in videos all to make my fellow coworkers laugh and smile. The best part was that all this extra-curricular fun was both praised and supported by the company, making sure I got paid for my time, every level of management approved of it happening, and it was seen as a positive effect on the organization.
How it affected my work
I felt I was a prime example of the quote, "When you love what you do, you won't work a day in your life." I got to work early every day and stayed hours late not because I had to but because I wanted to. I volunteered to work graveyard shifts just to make sure every employee had support and didn't feel excluded. I enjoyed my weekends, but looked forward to Mondays so I could continue making progress. My work was important, not just for the business, but for the people that made the business run. I viewed my work as improving the lives of every employee. I could make them happier and more productive while proving to the world that treating employees better makes a company flourish. My job had a deeply meaningful purpose that made me feel like I was making hundreds of people's lives better.
I took breaks whenever I wanted because I felt I earned them and it was like a small reward to acknowledge my own accomplishments. I would play table tennis or just hang out with acquaintances around the office, which not only helped me relax and clear my mind for the work I had ahead, but built relationships that further improved the efficiency of my work. Those breaks helped me find a balance that maximized my productivity every day and nobody said anything negative about it because the work I was producing could not be denied.
While other employees were face-down in their work all day every day, I had enough flexibility and time to take a variety of classes and training sessions to educate myself and make myself an even better person and worker. I was training on productivity methods, mental health, self-awareness, vulnerability, conflict resolution, and so much more. These self-improvement moments away from my desk gave me new understandings of the world that enabled me to do even better, more impactful work for the organization with a far greater success rate.
On more than one occasion, my coworkers and I took several days off to sit in an office and just talk about our work rather than actually working. Those moments led to innovations that completely changed how we worked. The time and cost of training was permanently reduced by 75% because of insights gained from those days. The ways I taught after that point made people from around the world come to me to ask how I do it. This only served to further validate my sense of purpose and value in the world, which made me happy to work even harder.
I have never worked as hard, as often, and as passionately in my life as I was during this time. I gave the company my all day in and day out and felt privileged to do so.
Back then, all of my needs were being met - not just adequately, but entirely. I had access to free food every day and could afford a comfortable place to rest my head every night, so my physiological needs were met. I was financially stable, had long-term job security, lived in a safe neighborhood, and had phenomenal health insurance, so my safety needs were met. My wife and I were living comfortably, I hung out with friends often, and my team and I were inseparable, so I had love and belonging. Peers in my organization knew looked to me as a subject matter expert who could be relied upon to get things done efficiently and quickly, so I had esteem.
Because all my other needs were met, I was able to focus on growing as a person, achieving more in the world, and pursuing self-actualization. The time I had to spend on learning and growing made me a better husband and friend, which only further strengthened my love and belonging. Taking all the time I needed to educate and train myself on various approaches to the work I did made me better at my job, which earned me even more esteem. The raises I earned because of my improved work efficiency let me buy a house and a car and start shopping for better quality food, reinforcing my physiological and safety needs.
The cycle was self-perpetuating. The more my other needs were met, the more time and energy I was able to dedicate to improving myself as a person and chasing my dreams. As I spent more time and energy on those things, my relationships improved, my work productivity increased, and that allowed me to strengthen my base needs even more. I was unstoppable and had never been happier. The company I worked for didn't have to devote any resources on managing me, making me hit my numbers, etc. By covering my baser needs, they provided me a platform to excel as an employee. By doing the bare humane minimum, it made me eager to work 80-hour weeks and innovate constantly.
That being said, this is a 3-part series ... Read part 2 to see how work performance is affected when not all of an employee's needs are met.