It's rare to find a graphic that so precisely explains why we may feel what we're currently feeling; and, more importantly, the secret for how to get unstuck. That graphic for me is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Most of us studied it in Psychology 101. If you were like me, you glossed over it, ignoring it as just another academic idea with no real life application. About ten years ago, after some career and life experiences, I ran across it again. It shocked me how closely it spoke to my circumstances. In Part One, I'm going to introduce the concept for those who are new to it or need a refresher. In Part Two, I break down how Maslow's Hierarchy creates a diagnosis and prognosis tool for organizations. Maslow’s Hierarchy has so many applications. When you understand the framework, applying it to any context where humans are living or working becomes helpful. I’ve been trying to break it for years. I can’t. It informs. It teaches. It forecasts. It advises. It just works.
The big idea of any triangular hierarchy is that everyone begins at the bottom. The goal is to progress up through the hierarchy to first achieve success, and ultimately achieve significance. To really comprehend how to understand the hierarchy, keep these points in mind:
For moments in life, we can operate at several levels of the hierarchy all at once. While you’re mostly working to secure one level, there are circumstances that will give you brief experiences at shallower or deeper levels.
There is no guarantee that you can permanently retain your current level. In fact, each of us are one difficult circumstance or one (bad) decision away from returning to the bottom of the hierarchy.
Before we walk through the levels, I want you to know that I’ve created a somewhat derivative version of the hierarchy. I just switched out some words hopefully without changing the underlying meaning or science. SURVIVAL This layer is our most basic need: air, food, water, shelter. If these needs are unmet, you don’t have the luxury of worrying about much more in life. If your stomach is empty, your mind and body command your full attention to solve the immediate need of eating. This is good, because not solving this need causes an existential crisis. If you’re cold, you search for shelter or more clothing, leaving all other concerns for later. Survival needs consume thoughts until solved. Your Survival needs affect your quantity of life, while your other needs affect your quality of life. In life, those struggling with homelessness are mostly stuck at this level of need. Living meal to meal and shelter to shelter ensures progress is limited to daily needs. Planning for the future, meeting one’s potential, and other more significant accomplishments remain elusive until one progresses beyond their survival needs. SECURITY This set of needs help to provide the motivation to create sustainability and predictability in your life. This need is met when physical, emotional, and financial security are achieved. To be clear, this is not so much about having a well-funded retirement plan. This is more about not worrying about predictable housing, next week’s needs, or whether or not your job will be there next month. This need is met when your mind has the luxury of dreaming more often about the future because you’ve built a reasonable safety net. A sustainable pace creates margin and grace. This need also manifests in physical ways. Consider communities that are afflicted with violent crime, homes where physical abuse is frequent, or countries dealing with ethnic wars. One’s feeling of constant physical fear will slow or eliminate progression. RELATIONAL This set of needs begins to move us from physical needs to more emotional needs. Relational needs help to motivate deeper, healthier relationships with family and friends. This need yearns for more intimate connections with others, platonic and/or romantic. If one solves survival and security needs, yet is lacking in quality relationships, they will feel disconnected and burdened. One insightful concept is that you are the amalgamation of the five people you spend the most time with. If those relationships are solid and healthy, then you may accidentally become solid and healthy. To solve the relational needs, skills will need to be built in conflict-resolution, healthy social behaviors, and positive interactions. Achieving consistency in this category will set the foundation for building greater influence, directly impacting your next sets of needs. GROWTH With solid relationships and predictability established at home and work, you will have the margin to consider how to grow yourself in deeper ways. Think about it, if you’re not chronically concerned with the effects of bad relationships or financial strain, you can spend important time building new skills, exploring new career options, or taking classes to build your résumé. Strong relational roots create the foundation for growth. This category is where you have the most opportunity to differentiate yourself in your career. My guess is that most of our modern society (in good economic times) spends their time working on these needs. If you’re reading this now, it may even be because you are looking to grow your sophistication in this area. THRIVE This set of needs is what Maslow referred to as "Self-Actualization." Your Thrive need compels you to maximize your potential. Achieving success at this level means reaping the benefits of your self-development and relational impact. You’ve achieved consistent, sustainable living standards. You have healthy relationships. The community around you holds you in esteem, and your colleagues respect you. For a joyful life it's essential to put in the effort to maximize your potential. Maslow’s research surmised this was our deepest need. However, decades later, psychologists who picked up where Maslow left off, added one more, deeper need. GIVE BACK In our progressive society, this need is almost self-evident today. We see it often with people who have achieved great things, and who decide to give their time, money, and energy to solve big challenges. This need is the deep desire to leverage who you are and what you’ve accomplished for the benefit of others. Pastor Andy Stanley says: "The quality of a person's life is measured by how much of it is given away." This need also has a fascinating facet. It can be met out of order of the other needs at times. All you have to do is go out of your way to do something sacrificial or nice for another person. Pause and think about a time when you did this in your life. Didn’t that moment cause some transcendent joy and deeper meaning in you? It’s almost a physiological, temporary teasing of what could be possible in our lives. The goal would be that we progress to this level, and have the pleasure of spending the bulk of our lives helping other people achieve their potential. What a beautiful goal. NOW WHAT I hope venturing through this has helped you connect with where you might be on the hierarchy, as well as some areas that can be shored up in your life. In Part Two, we explore how Maslow’s Hierarchy can revolutionize the way you think about your business or organization, and how this can impact your employee experience. It may be even more fascinating than the impact to you personally. Chris Green is a founding partner in Arch + Tower, which helps companies find unique success by creating world-class customer experiences through meaningful employee experiences. For more assistance in creating employee or customer experiences that leverage this and other insights, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.