Key Learning Outcomes

  • Learn about the well-known theory of motivation developed by Abraham Maslow in 1943, and how it can be applied to your business.
  • Outline Maslow’s five categories or hierarchy of primary needs.
  • Explain how you can apply the theory to your business so that your team is encouraged to meet their potential.
  • Recognise each of the needs and implement our suggestions for building employee engagement.


First developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943, this theory of human motivation is probably the most widely recognised and best-known motivation models. Usually depicted as a pyramid, as illustrated below, the theory arranges human needs into a hierarchy whereby people are motivated to fulfill a higher need as a lower one becomes gratified.

Over time, many academics and experts have dismissed the theory, as studies have concluded that people do not necessarily wait to fulfill a lower need before striving for a higher one. However, it is an important part of motivational theory and there are still many benefits in understanding the model and applying the knowledge in business today. This article will give you an understanding of the theory along with some tips on how to use it to motivate and build your team.


[wlm_ismember]Maslow’s five categories are defined as primary needs, as they are considered innate and universal. Maslow further identified the desire to know and the desire for aesthetic beauty as innate drives that do not fit within the hierarchy. Maslow’s theory states that we may be motivated by several needs at any one time, but that the strongest source of motivation comes from the lowest unsatisfied need. As the person satisfies the lower need, the next highest need in the hierarchy becomes the primary motivator.

Initially the motivation to satisfy our physiological needs is the highest priority and then as they become gratified we move up to the need for safety. The bottom four groups are considered deficiency needs as they become activated when unfulfilled. Self-actualisation is recognised as a growth need as it continues to develop even when it is fulfilled.

A number of empirical studies have concluded that people do not progress through the hierarchy as Maslow outlined; however, the theory does give us a good insight into the innate needs of humans in general, regardless of what order they need them in.

In business, it is important to recognise these needs and understand how we can use them to motivate and engage our teams. As outlined in the learning article on employee engagement, it has been proven that if employees are more engaged, it directly translates into greater performance for the business. Successful companies worldwide use recognition as a way to motivate and engage their teams. It is also important to note, that while there may be some criticism of Maslow’s theory, the need to satisfy our basic needs such as food and shelter is a strong primary need that most of us will strive to fulfill above all else.

How the theory can be applied to your business

The strong need for belonging and esteem that is inside all of us is one of the reasons that so many employees feel disengaged and unmotivated at work. Business owners often fail to understand that employees may see this as being more important than the financial rewards that they receive. We often hear stories where employees have gone to the business owner with a request for a pay rise. This can mean one of two things. On the one hand, the employee may be earning well below market value or may not be earning enough to satisfy the basic needs of food and housing. On the other hand, what we find most often is that they are looking for a level of recognition that they are not receiving and feel that a pay rise will help satisfy that need. Clients will say “but I pay them well, isn’t that enough”. The answer is no, not if you are looking to build a strong team that brings not just skills but also passion and commitment to work every day.

If we look at Maslow’s theory and understand that people want to reach their potential, and this is something that is innate in all of us, there is an opportunity to foster a work environment that will encourage employees to do their absolute best. No matter how big or small the business is, in order to ensure that you are returning the best possible result, it is essential to proactively work to build engagement in the team.

Here are a few ideas that can be implemented into your business quickly and easily:

As you can see there are a number of ways we can look to satisfy our employees’ needs that do not cost much more than our time and commitment. The important thing to remember when you look to implement recognition programs within your business is that if they are to be successful they must firstly be genuine, and secondly they must be consistent.[/wlm_ismember]

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