At some point in your managerial life, you will learn about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It will be presented as the answer to the conundrum of what motivates people. So here is a short guide to the original theory, and a more practical alternative that you can use day to day.
Maslow rightly observed that we are all needs junkies. We all need something: and once we have achieved that initial something, we move on to wanting something more. The wanting never goes away: the object of our desire simply changes. The only known cure is to retreat to a Buddhist monastery and learn the art of detachment through meditation: it works, but may not be good for your career ambitions.
Below are Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as he presented them: the italics show what those needs look like in the workplace.
1 Physiological: food, water. Having a job, any job.
2 Safety: shelter, protection. Job security, pay, and conditions.
3 Love: family and friends. Belonging to a worthwhile team and goal.
4 esteem: recognized by your peers. Recognition and success.
5 Self-actualization: achieving meaning and purpose in life. Leaving a legacy.
If you have no job, no income and a large mortgage, any job can look attractive. But as that need is filled, you are likely to aspire to higher things. By the time you become a CEO, you may be aiming for the huge pay-off and a knighthood/ damehood before retiring: there is always something more that people want. So up to a point, Maslow works.
In practice, it is hard to know where people are in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Asking a colleague if they are in need of love could be misinterpreted. And it is not always clear what in practice you can do about it. So we need something simpler.
In practice, people are motivated by four things:
We will ignore sex, although that has been used as a career weapon with great effect down the ages. You make your own choice on that. That leaves us with greed, fear, and idleness.
Greed This is simple. As Maslow showed, there is always something more which everyone wants. Take time to find out what it is. The simple act of finding out and respecting other people’s interests goes far in building trust. But remember, the more you give, the more they want. As soon as the bonus is paid, they want a promotion. As soon as the promotion is in the bag, they want the foreign post. Don’t give in to greed: use it. Make people work hard for their dream. Dangle the carrot in front of them, but do not let them eat it. Keep them hungry.
Fear Maslow’s hierarchy of needs works in reverse: there is always something we fear. We do not want to go backward. If we have recognition, we do not want to lose it. If we have a strong sense of belonging, we do not want to lose that—and we certainly do not want to lose our jobs. Threatening people with loss instils compliance, but not commitment. Show that you can help someone avoid their worst fears (and that their worst fears have a real chance of coming true), and you will find you have a willing ally.
idleness Plenty of people want to become a top movie star, singer, athlete, professor, or even politician. But that takes both effort and risk, and there are other things I want to do this evening. So idleness is the drag on our greed, our ambition. Leaders and sales people use this to good effect. Make it easy for people to follow and to buy. Make it easy for colleagues to agree with you, and make it awkward and painful for them to disagree. Most will take the easy route.
All of this is the theory. Day to day, you need some simple motivational tools to use. This is the purpose of the next section.
How to Motivate. The Practice.
You do not need psychology to work out how to motivate people. Start by thinking about the best boss you ever worked for. What did the boss do to motivate you so well? Do you do the same things with your team?
In reality, we all respond to simple motivational measures. Having asked thousands of people about their jobs, there is one question that consistently indicates how positive or negative you are likely to feel about your work: “my boss cares about me and my career” (agree/disagree). People who have bosses who don’t care feel bad about their job and their boss. People who have bosses who care are much more positive.
Caring is not about currying favor and trying to be liked. Caring means having the courage to be honest, to have the difficult conversation about performance in a positive way. You do not need to be liked: you need to be respected.
Ultimately, there is no short cut to motivating people. If you care, you have to invest time in your team. It is investing, not spending or wasting, time. And it is not “quality” time: “quality” is a euphemism for “minimal.”
Showing you care is simple to say but hard to do. So how do you show you care? Here are 10 things you can do every day to motivate your team better:
Ten ways to motivate your team
1 Take time to listen to your team. Understand their hopes, fears, and dreams. Casual time by the water cooler, rather than a formal expectations meeting in an office, is often the best way to get to know your colleagues and team members.
2 Say thank you. We all crave recognition. We want to know we are doing something worthwhile and that we are doing it well. Make your praise real, for real achievement. And make it specific. Avoid the synthetic one-minute manager style praise: “gee, you photocopied that sheet of paper really well....”
3 Never demean a colleague. If you have criticism, keep it private and make it constructive. Don’t scold them like school children. Treat them as partners and work together to find a way forward.
4 Delegate well. Delegate meaningful work which will stretch and develop your team member. Yes, routine rubbish has to be delegated, but delegate some of the interesting stuff as well. Be clear and consistent about your expectations.
5 Have a vision. Show where your team is going and how each team member can help you all get there. Have a clear vision for each team member: know where they are going and how you can help them get there.
6 Trust your team. Do not micromanage them. Practise MBWA: the gurus call it “manage by walking around.” The better version is called “manage by walking away.”
7 Be honest. Be ready to have difficult but constructive conversations with struggling team members early. Don’t shade or hide the truth. Honesty builds trust and respect, provided you are constructive with it.
8 Set clear expectations. Be very clear about promotion and bonus prospects, and about the required outcome from each piece of work. Assume that you will be misunderstood: people hear what they want to hear. So make it simple, repeat it often and be 100% consistent.
9 Over-communicate. You have two ears and one mouth: use them in that proportion. Listen twice as much as you speak. Then you will find out what really drives your team members and you can act accordingly.
10 Don’t try to be friends. It is more important to be respected than it is to be liked. Trust endures where popularity is fickle and leads to weak compromises. If your team trusts and respects you, they will want to work for you.
As with all things that sound simple, in practice it is very hard to do all these things well and to do them consistently. It is high effort, but normally very high reward. Of course, there will always be the occasional member of the awkward squad, but most people will respond well if you show you care.