Use Maslow’s hierarchy to develop better leaders

His levels of needs can be applied to work environments to help personnel thrive


In early September 2022, I conducted a Justice Clearinghouse webinar about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as it relates to supervision and leadership.

First articulated by American psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943, his hierarchy generally depicts human needs as a pyramid: Physiological needs like food, sleep and clothing represent the base or most important level. This level is followed, in ascending order, by safety needs (e.g., health, shelter), love and belonging (family, friendship), esteem (self-esteem, respect from others) and self-actualization (becoming the best person one is capable of becoming).

I asked the webinar attendees about the most significant impediment for a person to become the best possible employee at their workplace. It is a simple question, but the significance of the answers from my audience of over 500 participants was, unfortunately, not surprising. The obstacles for employees were identified as follows:

  • Managers/supervisors: 68%
  • Social work environment: 22%
  • Peers, salary and physical work environment: 4% or less

It was not surprising to see the audience identified managers and supervisors as the most significant barrier to employees achieving their best. Interestingly, salary was not a factor.

Building on what the audience identified as the significant problem, we can use Maslow’s pyramid to help evaluate how our supervisory and leadership styles impact our employees’ ability to excel.

The Maslow pyramid for supervisors and leaders is the same one we use for individuals. It would be easy to leave the development of our personnel up to them, but in our current state of hiring and retention, we must play an active role in developing our employees. Professional development should be part of the organizational culture – our employees expect it.

Maslow’s hierarchy can be an evaluative tool for supervisors and leaders to determine how their individual actions assist their employees in moving up the pyramid. If you are not a proponent of using Maslow in evaluating your leadership impact, look at it as a retention tool that will minimize the number of employees who leave for greener pastures. Employees today expect to be engaged and find relevance in what they contribute. Maslow provides a pathway for engagement while developing employees into skilled future leaders.

APPLYING MASLOW’S LEVELS AT WORK

Physiological needs are the basic needs of our employees in the physical work environment where we expect them to perform and hopefully thrive. We must ask ourselves if the physical environment we provide for our people is congruent with the expectations we have for them to perform their duties. If our personnel must work in an environment that is substandard, we must evaluate how that environment affects their performance. Do our expectations for performance and conduct align with the environment we provide?

Safety can manifest itself in a variety of ways. It can be the security of stable employment, equal access to opportunities, a salary that reflects employee skill sets, and an impartial disciplinary process. As leaders, we each have a responsibility to ensure we promote an atmosphere of safety. This does not imply we cannot hold our employees responsible for their actions, but the manner in which we hold them accountable is key – particularly if we want them to develop into peer leaders, middle managers and executives.

Love and belonging are where personnel begin to think outside their individual positions with the agency. There is a connection with others that creates a sense of friendship, togetherness and in many instances family. This is where employees may decide to remain with the organization because they feel connected to others. As leaders, if we can create an environment where this connectedness combines with a shared mission or purpose, we will have employees who are more likely to remain. Creating a sense of a shared mission will pay dividends for supervisors.

The need for esteem at work is vital to any employee. We are not robots who simply go to work and perform regulated tasks. Our jobs are complex, varied and people-centered. Work is also a social activity that is similar to the dynamics of a family or sports team. We each play a role in the success or failure of the team. As individuals, we crave recognition for our actions and reverence for the duties we perform. Leaders and supervisors should have a plan to move their people toward performing duties that focus on others, community and the greater good. Fortunately, we hire people who have many of these traits, but let us create an environment where these attributes thrive, can be modeled and become culture.

The highest level for Maslow is self-actualization. This is where we see the results of developing our people through the other levels of Maslow’s pyramid. When our employees reach this level of professional development, we have provided them the tools to be skilled leaders capable of sound decision-making, risk assessment, ethical conduct and proactivity. These are the traits we need in our fully developed employees.

The most significant benefit of having self-actualized employees is their ability to model the actions of the supervisors and leaders who led them on their path to fully developed skill sets. This is the foundation for creating a culture that supports professional development, positive leadership modeling, accountability and superior delivery of services. It is not only the pinnacle for the employee, but over time and with consistent application of Maslow, it will be the pinnacle for the organization itself.

I leave you with the challenge of evaluating Maslow as it applies to you, your organization and your personnel. Determine the type of culture being practiced each day within your agency. Does the culture support or detract from a supervisory model of Maslow’s pyramid? Determine what can be done better or differently to promote a supportive work environment.

NEXT: Are you ready for the active supervision challenge?

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