Maslow & Me: How Basic Needs Affect Work Performance [Part 2 of 3]
Updated: Jul 20
Precursor: This article the second 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. If you haven't already, we recommend reading part 1 first.
Where I was
A couple years ago, I was seeking esteem and love and belonging. I was in the middle of Maslow's pyramid and I felt mediocre at best. I was working in a world-famous organization known for its culture and employee experience, yet I was no longer as proud of it as I once was. Previously, I would tell anyone I could about it, now I only did when asked directly. When I spoke of the company, I would balance my words with a grain of salt, regularly softening my own negative experiences so as not to undermine the organization's public image.
I felt guilty for feeling anything negative about the company which I had so many incredible experiences and memories at. I had a career because of them, I made good money because of them, and I lived comfortably because of them. I felt childish and entitled whenever I was angry or sad at work, as if my feelings weren't justified because of how well I'd been treated in the past.
See, things had previously been fantastic for me, but I was now struggling. When I was implementing changes in the way management wanted, they loved me. However, as I learned and grew during my time of self-actualization, I saw that there was a better way. I realized that my methods were not treating people well, that a lot of harm had been caused by how we were implementing things, and that upper-management especially was not setting a good example for working or living the proposed values of the company. As soon as I started to bring these things up, attitudes changed.
I was no longer viewed as the guy who worked 16-hour days and took on tremendously responsibilities while regularly participating in culture and morale boosting events. Instead, I was viewed as the guy who danced instead of worked and who was always rocking the boat. I would meet with low-level managers to discuss how their actions were impacting the experience of employees on their team, and the next day a C-Suite Executive would tell me to knock it off and that I need to stay in my lane.
How it affected my work
I stopped working extra long days and meeting with every team throughout the organization because I was afraid I'd be accused of stepping on toes and involving myself in areas where I didn't belong. I stopped participating in fun culture activities, even when people specifically asked for me to, because I was tired of being viewed as the "silly" guy instead of the "hard working" guy, and it had been made clear to me that I couldn't be both.
Every project I wanted to pursue, every solution I came up with to resolve data-proven company problems were all shut down explicitly because it came from me. My team tested this theory and proved it true time and time again. I stopped working on projects I felt mattered and made a difference because I knew they would go nowhere. Instead, I took on whatever work someone was willing to give me. I desperately wanted to be productive. I begged to be useful.
Eventually, I stopped trying. I leisured in activities that most would immediately label as being a bad employee, taking advantage of the company, etc. I showed up late and left early and the majority of my time in the office was spent playing table tennis. I hung out in the cafe all day every day, not only because there was no point to me being at my desk, but because I literally didn't have a desk. Any place I had to sit had been taken away from me and I got in trouble for sitting in whatever departmental area I thought I should have been sitting. I was an outcast.
Even still, despite openly playing a game in front of everyone all day, I kept my job. That angered me even more. I begged for someone, anyone, to care enough about the organization that I would be given an ultimatum. I wanted to be given work that needed to be done. I wanted to know my job was on the line if I didn't complete a task. I wanted to know that someone cared whether I even worked there or not. I knew that if I had any responsibility I would do an incredible job and prove my value, but I was never given that opportunity. So, every day I would dread going into the office, struggle emotionally for hours, and go home feeling less valuable.
During those years, only my basic needs were being met. I still had all the same benefits, resources, pay, and living situation, so both my physiological needs and my safety needs were still completely met. However, I was desperately in need of esteem and love and belonging. My team supported me and we all cared for and looked out for one another. All the people I worked with and helped day-to-day throughout the organization knew I was valuable and always thanked me for my effort. Sadly, none of the people who cared about me had any say in my future at the organization. My direct team and peers gave me esteem and love and support, but I received not a drop of either from any of the people that determined the success of my career.
The higher-ups - directors and executives - hated me. They would complain about me to my manager rather than speaking to me directly. They would lie to my face and tell me things are fine, then tell my manager to fire me. They would shut down ideas that came from me while gladly approving ideas that came from someone else, even if it was actually my idea. I would ask for work, so I could be valuable and productive, and receive nothing. I was literally draining company resources by working there without working. I hated it, but nobody cared enough to do anything about it.
I began to avoid doing the little bit of work I did have the opportunity to do because I didn't feel valuable as a person. I was once confident in the work I did, but now I was sure I would screw up anything I touched. Why else would everyone stop looking at me as the subject matter expert? I stopped participating in the culture because making other people happy felt like a lie when I was so terribly sad. I stopped trying to improve the organization on the managers' terms because they refused to improve it on the employees' terms.
I stopped trying because I didn't feel cared for or valued as a worker or a person. I developed PTSD and depression for the first time in my life and didn't think it could get worse.
Thankfully, this is still a 3-part series ... Read part 3 to see how work performance is affected when none of an employee's needs are met, and how much of an impact is has on someone to meet their needs when they need it most.