3 Leadership Lessons from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

3 Leadership Lessons from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs 

We’re used to seeing our news feeds full of the latest trends and cutting-edge research. But sometimes history offers timeless lessons that are always relevant to developing our leadership skills and company culture. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a great example of a tried-and-true model for understanding people and their motivations. Understanding it can help us build more caring teams and become more compassionate leaders.  


What’s Maslow’s Hierarchy?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is most often depicted in a pyramid to illustrate that the basic needs at the bottom are foundational, and they must be at least partially met to be able to move up the pyramid toward your psychological needs and your self-actualization needs. The needs in this pyramid are motivational needs: getting lower-level, more basic needs met empowers us, motivating us to meet higher-level needs. 


  • Basic Needs (on the bottom two levels) are our most immediate needs for food, water, warmth, rest, shelter, and safety.
  • The next two levels encompass our Psychological Needs for belongingness, love, and self-esteem.
  • Our Self-Actualization needs are at the top of the pyramid because they represent the highest level of fulfillment we can attain. When these needs are met—even partially— we have a feeling we are reaching our full potential and free to do things that make us feel the most like ourselves.


Here are a few of the most important lessons we’ve learned as leaders when thinking about how this hierarchy can impact our growth and our workplace culture.


#1: Get Our Own Needs Met

You might be wondering, why is this the first step? Isn’t it selfish to put ourselves first, especially if we want to be servant-leaders? It’s understandable to feel a bit trapped here, but it’s helpful to reframe this. If we don’t have our own needs met we’ll always be working from a deficit. Think of the safety instructions you hear on every flight: please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. When we’re exhausted, we don’t have the energy to support our team. When we’re not feeling supported, how can we effectively support someone else? Take an inventory of your needs and your fulfillment with your coach, therapist, or someone else you trust to work through it with care and honesty. See any gaps? Prioritize those. Delegate when you can. Take time to get those needs satisfied, and plan to make more significant, team-wide changes once you’re feeling like you can lead from a place of abundance. 


#2: Lead Empathically to Encourage Growth 

Our team is passionate about not just accepting, but centering and celebrating differences. Teams and leaders can do that most effectively when they’ve built trust on a foundation of meaningful common ground. 


Looking for ideas? Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs reminds us that we all have needs for basic safety, bolstered self-esteem, and to live a life where we can confidently say we’re being true to ourselves. Think about your team. How much more would they trust you and each other if you asked questions like: 


  • How are things going? 
  • Is there anything I can do to support you?
  • What do you need from me to do your job well?


Once your team shares their feedback, it may be helpful to prioritize according to the hierarchy: focus on the more urgent, fundamental needs first so that everyone is more equipped to work toward higher-level goals.


An important note here: perfection is not possible, so it’s a good thing it’s not necessary. Maslow was careful to clarify that needs of one level don’t have to be 100% met before we’re able to move “up the pyramid”. As long as you’re making an effort to support your team, it will benefit their overall efforts to meet their needs and improve themselves.


#3: Provide Opportunities to Self-Actualize 

Self-actualization is always evolving. It can mean different things to us, and our team members, at different times. Much of it is likely happening “off the clock” when people are engaged in spiritual practice, self-care, and spending time doing things that they most enjoy. 


However, it’s not impossible for capable leaders to foster an environment that encourages a greater sense of self-actualization. 


“In the workplace, it can be used as a way of describing people who are happy in their space. They are well rewarded, recognized and confidently taking on new challenges. People who have reached this state, know their limitations and capabilities and can live with them.” – FutureWork


Practically speaking, we can learn the answers to questions like:


  • What makes our teams happiest in their work?
  • What type of recognition or reward is most motivating and fulfilling?
  • When do they feel most equipped to move forward to face a challenge?


And seek ways to build the answers into our performance reviews, incentive programs, and employee success plans more effectively. The key, of course, is ensuring similar work has been done at the more foundational levels first, both in our teams and within ourselves.

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  • Lead by example
  • Prioritize employee development
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  • Celebrate successes and learn from failures

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