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The Self-actualizing organization

Understanding employee experience (EX) and human needs at work

“What one can be, one must be!” 

― Abraham H. Maslow 

What is Project Dialogue?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is the well-known pyramid, outlining what every human needs to survive and thrive in society. The foundation is built on your basic needs of food, water, shelter, safety, and then additional layers are added on—things like belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. The idea is that to move on to the next layer, your needs in an area must be more or less satisfied. Thus, someone without shelter is unable to find belonging, someone without belonging can’t realize self-esteem, and so on.

That got us curious: could we apply the concept of Maslow’s hierarchy to business? If so, how does Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs relate to organizational culture and employee experience? With that, our research program Project Dialogue was born.

It turns out that Maslow laid an excellent foundation (pun unintended) for further research and work on corporate culture in the 21st Century. Our preliminary findings, based on focus groups with mid and large-size organizations, explore how leaders are addressing employee needs and how Maslow reinvented can help organizations realize self-actualizing leaders.

Redesigning the Hierarchy. It turns out that Maslow never visualized his work to be the pyramid that we are familiar with today. That design was popularized by Charles McDermid in the 1960s as a tool for consultants, and it took off. Yet Maslow’s work is way beyond a simple triangle or linear progression of needs, and illustrating it this way leads to wide misinterpretation with insufficient context. Further, it’s been almost 80 years since the original hierarchy was established—updating it for life today is necessary for continued application.

Project Dialogue recognizes this work to be a circular, interdependent structure rather than a linear pyramid. Rather than a linear pattern that assumes that completion of one means automatic progression to the next, our design acknowledges the complexity of human needs and human nature, understanding that the cycle can weave in and out of the layers depending on personal circumstances. This means that all layers work together, ebb and flow, and are intrinsically connected.

This visual representation is still under construction, and we are soliciting feedback from our research participants on the most impactful final design. Join our research.

Why Maslow?

Maslow identified that a fully realized person is a self-actualizing person. In other words, a person who achieves their full potential, including their creative ventures. Further, he proposed the concept of enlightened management, noting that trust is paramount and that employees have a natural potential to grow and transcend. Now that organizations are understanding the value of being more people focused, Maslow’s visionary knowledge is directly applicable. 

Making It Relevant.

In our redesign, we’ve included the original five main dimensions (physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization needs) while incorporating cultural layers and 21st century workplace context to make it relevant to our experience today. One of the valid points of Maslow critics is that there can be differences in the order of needs, based on culture. For example, some cultures may put belonging as a higher need than esteem. Additionally, physical safety and security work together in a 21st century workplace. Considering nuances like these, we’ve combined certain needs into the same layer and focused specifically on Maslow’s application to workplaces.

Connecting Human Needs with Employee Experience. The result of our early research is the categorization of employee needs and employee experience into 3 initial layers.. We found that Maslow’s definition of the Being Needs (B-Needs) and the Deficiency Needs (D-Needs) resonated very well with leaders and employees. 

Basic Needs – Safety & SecurityPsychological Safety – Belonging & EsteemGrowth Needs – Self-Actualization
Tools & Technology: Working technology, hardware, software, internet connectivity, having the right tools & equipment to do your job. Social Connections: Camaraderie, a feeling of community, emotional support during tough times, friendship, having a good friend at work. 
Purpose, Leaders & Culture: Having a clear purpose that goes beyond profit, that is embodied by its leaders and encouraged through its culture at all levels. Having an impact and meaningful output. Taking care of the people, the stakeholders and the communities they operate within
Training: Clear expectations at work, basic training and support for doing the work. Inclusion: Ability to be yourself, psychologically safe space, openness to diverse ideas. Freedom to express your thoughts constructively, consultative decision making. Healthy flow of ideas and information.Leadership Presence & Cohesiveness:
Leaders work cohesively, are aligned, can hold conflicting views without losing respect. Strategy & goals are not just top-down, they are both top-down and bottom-up.
Total Rewards: Job security, fair pay, benefits, extended benefits, pension/investment plans. Collaboration: Trusted colleagues, ability to rely on others to do a good job, getting things done collaboratively, teamwork.  Leaders as Coaches & Mentors:
Leaders are great mentors, coaches, focusing on helping their people grow and reach their best selves both individually and collectively. There is a sense of cultivating people as individuals with unique needs. Leaders and the system are raising other leaders, creating legacy, succession.
Environment: Clean and safe work environment, ergonomically suitable workspaces, access to beverages, food, kitchen, creative workspace, transportation. Learning &  Development: Opportunities to learn new things & increase skill set. Training and on-the-job development opportunities. Exposure to other leaders, other professionals, other areas in the organization and outside the organization. Receiving mentorship & coaching. Opportunities for advancement. Empowerment:
Belief in people’s potential, high trust, giving autonomy, freedom to manage, freedom to choose, freedom to act,  openness to new ideas, and creativity.
Physical Wellbeing: Break time, vacation time, health programs, lifestyle & fitness.Appreciation, recognition, celebration: Personal appreciation and formal recognition of value-added and quality of work.  Celebration of good news and successes. People-centered Policies & practices: Policies, practices, procedures are derived from creative processes, human-centered design with ongoing improvement and iterations.

Moving to Self-Actualization. Our research intends to understand how human needs show up at the workplace in the (post-)covid era. Our early findings have important implications for understanding basic needs and psychological needs at work. Building on the basic needs and psychological needs, an organization can move into a high-performing phase of realizing its people and organizational potential. The key dimensions of self-actualization at work are also indicators of defining a self-actualizing organization. We define a self-actualizing organization as a purpose-driven, people-focused, high-performing organization, aligning with the findings of embodied purpose, people-focused culture, and cohesive & empowering leadership.

 As evidenced by the chart above, it is no longer enough for an organization to only offer things like benefits, training, and vacation. In fact, in the 21st century, that is considered to be the bare minimum. Further, what was considered to be progressive in the past (like an inclusive, collaborative, and appreciative work environment) is now a fundamental pillar of psychological safety that is necessary for an organization to move into the ultimate goal of self-actualization. The old-school method of top-down authority is out. Empowering leaders, Purpose, culture, and coaching are in.

Self-transcendence Our recent findings align with Maslow’s concept of self-transcendence. We found that self-transcendence is more an induvial state rather than an organizational place. Self-transcendence is highly similar to wise leadership or Yene Assegid’s idea of leading with heart. Our work in this area is ongoing. 

Needs and Strengths We are in the process of clarifying how strengths and needs relate. Living our strengths is a Being-Need / Self-Actualization Need. Understanding the full spectrum of human needs encompasses strengths and goes beyond strengths. In sum, strengths and needs are interconnected and we need to expand explore the full spectrum of human needs, what’s pulling them forward, and what are the realities of life, to help them realize their potential.  

From Survive to Thrive. Some companies survive by playing in only the Basic and Psychological Needs, so why move to the self-actualization Growth needs? With younger generations changing jobs every 2-3 years on average, they look for companies that value their input and help them grow into the best versions of themselves. The world is quickly shifting into an experience-driven model, and those companies that are merely surviving will no longer make the cut. As expectations for experience and value increase, moving your company to self-actualization will be vital to take you from surviving to thriving. 

The Work’s Not Done. Project Dialogue is in the early stages of our two-year research, and our results are preliminary and ongoing. We completed the first phase of qualitative research and are planning to launch the quantitative research in 2022. If you’re interested in helping us with this project, please reach out to us! We are looking for research partners looking for to further fund our research or companies to partner with for our research. You can bring the research to your organization—we run private in-house, company-focused virtual sessions. Either way, your collaboration with us will be an integral part of reinterpreting Maslow and defining success for organizations in the 21st century. Be part of the movement and learn with us.

It seems that the necessary thing to do is not to fear mistakes, to plunge in, to do the best that one can, hoping to learn enough from blunders to correct them eventually.” 
― Abraham Harold Maslow 

Further Articles:

Here are some articles on this topic explaining further concepts, findings, and applications for organizations:

Tiryaki, T., (2021), Basic Needs at Work: The Changing Hierarchy of Needs, https://www.maslowleadership.com/resources/2021/basic-needs-at-work-the-changing-hierarchy/

Tiryaki, T., (2021), Coaching for Self-Actualization Part 1: Re-envisioning the Hierarchy of Needs in the 21st century, International Coaching Federation (ICF) Blog  https://coachingfederation.org/blog/coaching-for-self-actualization

Tiryaki, T., (2021), Coaching for Self-Actualization Part 2: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Employee Experience, International Coaching Federation (ICF) Blog https://coachingfederation.org/blog/coaching-for-self-actualization-2