Motivation starts with you: Do you truly understand your team's needs?

Ensure that your teams get the support and leadership they need to excel.

By Tom Moriarty, Alidade MER

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Being a motivator means creating eagerness among others to act, supporting their decisions, and accepting challenges. Motivating people starts with understanding their needs. As individuals, we do things to satisfy needs within ourselves. To obtain insight and to enhance our ability to lead others, we must understand needs and how needs motivate.

In this article I’ve included discussions on prominent theories from behavioral science. These theories are well-known and respected, and writings about them have been peer-reviewed. They are provided to help you frame your thoughts when wrestling with needs and motivations. If one of the theories resonates with you, use it as your model. I also encourage you to research these theories more deeply to further develop your knowledge and skills.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Perhaps the most familiar needs model is Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, developed in the 1940s and published in 1954. Maslow determined that there are five general levels of needs. The general levels were grouped into these five categories and arranged in order from the most basic to the most aspirational for individuals. From bottom to top, the five levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are:

  1. Physiological needs
  2. Safety and security
  3. Belongingness and love
  4. Esteem
  5. Self-actualization

Let’s go over the definitions of each need:

Physiological needs are a person’s most basic biological needs. Examples include breathable air, food, water, shelter, and sleep.

Safety and security needs refer to a person’s physical safety, health, and economic security. People need to provide for themselves and their families. Within an industrial environment, this has implications when it comes to working conditions, safety precautions, and business viability. Are workers provided with personal protective equipment (PPE)? When safety issues are reported, do supervisors and managers deal with those issues? Is the plant or company planning to or likely to close?

Belongingness and love needs refer to the social aspects of a person’s life: family, friends, and intimacy. Beyond the basic needs (physiological, safety-related, and security-related), people begin to have latitude in determining whether their current situation is comfortable. Belongingness and love needs address whether a person feels as though he or she fits in and is accepted by others. People are social beings, and they need to interact with and be accepted and appreciated by those around them.

Leaders have a major influence on this need. Belongingness and love are a foundation for building trust. If people are disrespected or talked down to, they will not be inclined to trust leadership or to be engaged team members.

Esteem refers to a person’s need to be recognized for his or her performance, competence, or mastery, and/or that person’s status within the organization. When people feel comfortable because their belongingness and love needs are effectively met, esteem appeals to the individual’s desire to feel valuable and appreciated. People want to feel that they are important. Overtly telling people you appreciate their continued good performance and their importance to the organization is easy to do. It shows that you trust, respect, and appreciate their expertise. It also can raise their status within the organization.

Self-actualization reflects an individual’s desire to grow and develop to his or her full potential. This goes beyond earning a paycheck for being good at a job or being recognized for competence or mastery of a skill. This is about a person pushing the limits of his or her abilities. A person never becomes completely self-actualized because self-actualization is a moving target – a continually evolving set of personal objectives. As one set of skills is mastered, a self-actualized person resets his or her objectives and attempts to conquer another set of skills or capabilities.

Application of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

  • Lower-level needs must be sufficiently satisfied before the next-higher level of needs can be used to motivate behaviors.
  • Generally satisfied needs have less power to influence behaviors than unsatisfied needs do.
  • Lower-level needs don’t go away, but people become less conscious of them when more-powerful needs are in play.

McClelland’s Needs Theory

David McClelland published several research papers from the 1950s through the 1990s. McClelland and his research team developed McClelland’s Needs Theory based on three types of needs;

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