Motivation theories for your employees

4 min read  |   28 July, 2021   By Melissa Jones


There is a huge misconception that people work to earn money and that’s all. Everyone is motivated by different factors and, as people that manage people, it is imperative to understand what actually motivates the individuals and teams that you work with.

To do this you need to establish how you can increase employee motivation and motivation theories will support you in doing this.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

One of the most commonly known and influential workplace motivation theories was presented by Abraham Maslow and it is the Hierarchy of Needs.  The theory suggests that humans are motivated to satisfy five basic needs which, as the title suggests, are arranged in a hierarchy.

The hierarchy is represented by 5 steps:

  1. Physiological needs – i.e hunger, thirst, sleep
  2. Safety needs – i.e freedom, protection and no pain
  3. Social needs – i.e love, friendship and involvement in social activities
  4. Esteem needs – i.e self-confidence, recognition and appreciation
  5. Self-actualisation – i.e becoming the very best you can be

These 5 progressive categories begin with basic physical needs and progress up to the need for personal growth and career development.

It is asserted that a satisfied need is not a motivator and so once one set of needs has been met an individual is motivated to reach the next level of needs. A human’s innate desire to work our way up the hierarchy means that it is the unsatisfied needs that motivate a person to pursue satisfaction rather than the achievement of a set of needs.

It is claimed that employers must meet each level of an employee’s needs for them to be fully committed to workplace goals. Failure to meet an employee’s needs at any level may result in a lack of job fulfillment and cause such individuals to fulfill these needs on their own. This could be through seeking new employment that provides better opportunities.


How you can apply this in your business?


Lower level stuff

Many companies excel at meeting the lower level needs of their employees. There is no secret that companies such as Google provide their staff with free meals, juices, coffee and snacks and that is great, but it’s not something that makes them unique.

That is something easily replicated in any business. These are basic, physiological needs that you are probably already doing in your small business. Do you provide your staff with a kettle and tea and coffee? You’re already heading in the right direction.

What is different however, is that these things soon become the norm and, as previously mentioned, your employees are motivated by constantly striving for more. So if you’re not quite there with progressing to the higher stages of the pyramid you could try gradually introducing new elements that you’re happy to make a norm in the future. It could be that you buy in lunch for the team once a month.

You should remember that this doesn’t just count for food, although that is something that satisfies all of us. Other simple ways that you can help your employees on their journey up the Hierarchy of Needs is by mixing up your office environment.

Giving your white walls a splash of colour or investing in ergonomic furniture that is going to prevent your employees seizing up over their desks will go a long way to achieving employee satisfaction at the lower levels of the pyramid.


Getting to the top

Ideally what every business owner, manager, HR professional and well, any person is aiming for, is to get to the top of the Hierarchy of Needs and achieve true satisfaction, according to Maslow.

However, the majority of companies fall short and often remain stagnant on those lower levels of the pyramid. This is because as businessmen/women used to dealing with quantifiable numbers and objects, the abstract concept of self actualisation is hard to get your head around.

Totally understandable. Even as individuals it is difficult for us to realise what it will take for us to truly be the best we can be, let alone be able to do that for someone we work with.

Larger companies like Netflix are coming round to this realisation; they no longer have set working hours or a set number of holiday days, as long as the job gets done, they don’t mind when it’s happening. This taps into the esteem level of the pyramid, showing that they respect their employees and trust them enough to work when it suits them, whilst also having a positive effect on their work life balance.

Another large company that is working towards mastering the top level stuff is Deloitte. They offer two different sabbatical programmes; an unpaid one-month sabbatical that can be taken for any reason; and a three – six-month sabbatical that can be taken to pursue personal or professional growth opportunities.

This is all very well for these large businesses that can afford to give up these resources without huge consequence. There are ways that your small business can do these things too. Try hosting a company ‘work on what you want day’. This gives your employees the freedom to explore something that is a world away from their rigid to-do list or it could be a chance to achieve something they’ve wanted to do for ages but time restraints have prevented them from doing so. This is a small step into that top tier and providing your employee’s with the opportunity to realise their potential.

The satisfaction of achieving the lower levels of the Hierarchy of Needs are important as they are the foundation of the rest of the pyramid. However, you must remember that it can’t stop there. These basic needs will quickly become the norm and employees will be continually striving to progress further up the hierarchy.

If you, as an employer, are unable to provide them with the tools to help them to reach the top, because of your inability to understand the importance of abstract concepts, and achieve satisfaction with their professional life then they will seek that satisfaction elsewhere and continue to climb that career ladder.


Author: Melissa Jones

Mel is the Content Manager at breatheHR. She regularly contributes insights into the current small business climate with a focus on how HR is crucial to the success and growth of UK startups.

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