Aligning needs to employee engagement – how we can easily get it wrong with the best intentions

By our guest Jenni Field

Many people working in communications, marketing and PR will be familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is often one of the main models taught when studying the theory behind what we do. 

I revisited it recently in the book Art of Resilience, by Ross Edgley, and a story in that book made me think about our alignment of reward and need in the workplace. Ross’s book tells his story about his swim around the United Kingdom – something no one had done before. 

In my work, taking organisations through The Field Model, I often talk about getting the basics right. You’ll struggle with engagement for a company party (online or in person) to celebrate some big milestone when you’re not getting the basics right around job descriptions and fairness for promotion. 

Listening to Ross (I chose the audiobook to listen while I drive) tell the story of his 100 days at sea milestone struck a chord. 

Ross talks about an amazing moment where sky writers took to the air to write 100 days and a love heart in sky as he hit the milestone. While the intention was wonderful and he wasn’t ungrateful at all, what he really wanted was bread. He went on to say it could have been white, brown, granary, any kind – but he wanted bread. 

He links this to needs and the different levels Maslow suggests. The skywriting is an esteem need. It was designed to celebrate him and his accomplishment. It’s fairly high up the pyramid, just below self-actualisation, and was done with the absolutely right intentions to celebrate what he was doing – the 100-day milestone. 

The reality for Ross, was that he was further down the pyramid. Much further. In fact, he was at the bottom in physiological needs where it’s all about food, shelter, warmth and rest.  

In some ways, the esteem need is easy – and a much more comfortable place for us to go when it comes to employee engagement. There are often links to reward and recognition when it comes to engagement and this is all about esteem. But if employees aren’t there and are further down the pyramid this just won’t have the impact some might think it will. 

This made me think about the current climate specifically when it’s likely individuals are further down the pyramid than they might have been pre pandemic. Our focus on some of the more physiological needs and safety needs shouldn’t be underestimated at the moment. It made me wonder what is being done to address those in the workplace as well – or at least being mindful about the need state of our employees.  

At the moment, physiological, safety and belongingness will be important to focus on. If you’re a line manager, how are you focussing on these with your team? How are you checking in that these are all being met both at work and at home? And importantly, how can we all help each other?


MIKE – Excellent questions. Indeed the Maslow pyramid speaks to a certain linearity that doesn’t map onto real life. One can be tired and happy, rich and frustrated or celebrated and bereft at the same time.  Moreover, certain intentions can be more specific or less vulnerable to others. Some people will tolerate being broke to pursue a dream, for instance, more than they would a comfortable but tedious job.

KEVIN – Interesting piece Jenni, which raises so many questions. Maslow’s hierarchy has an enduring and enticing sense of correctness. Except, as Mike says, life is not linear. Of course, many people are understandably concerned about job security and wellbeing at the moment (physiological and safety needs) and a lot of great internal comms has been done to inform and reassure employees. At the same time, employees do also want to feel that they are part of a supportive culture, which includes a sense of belongingness at work (love and belonging needs). My PhD supervisor, Dr Mary Welch, includes belonging in her CUBA framework for internal communication (commitment to the org, understanding of it, belonging to it and awareness of the changing environment). Dr Rita Men in the US has done some great work on exploring the differences between a rational and emotional culture, with an emphasis on how employees feel, such as experiencing joy, fun, happiness, and compassionate love at work. I would argue that good, basic, internal comms is all about physiological, safety, compassionate love and belonging needs. When internal comms builds from this and also incorporates active listening, dialogue, collaboration and co-creation it then serves esteem and and self-actualisation needs too. The question is how far has internal comms moved to these ‘higher level’ aspects of practice where the real gains in innovation and successful change from internal comms can be secured? 

JANET – Great questions Jenni and I completely agree. I have previously witnessed leaders getting frustrated that teams were focused on what they saw as minor details and not the vision and the mission. But the details were things like food storage, space to take a break and toilet rolls. If you don’t sweat the small stuff you won’t get higher up that pyramid. And no fancy internal comms strategy or plan will help you if your people’s energy is focused on the basics that aren’t right. 

ADAM – Jenni, this is excellent. I agree with what the others have said, but I would also add that as dot connectors in organizations, internal communication professionals should stand ready to raise red flags with leadership when the desired outcome is not being achieved (e.g., excitement about the mission, speed at delivering initiatives – whatever the case may be). Shortcomings may well have nothing to do with how the higher level need is being addressed but with those lower-level needs that Janet provides examples of (food storage, break facilities, etc.). Understanding the shortcoming may require a deep dive into data that already exist. Were all the comments left in the latest employee engagement survey really read and is there a plan for addressing them? Has that plan been communicated? Has the feedback been acknowledged? And if there are specific teams or even individuals falling short, have their needs been addressed? Are they being compensated properly? Are there issues with supervisors that are going unaddressed? Are there things going on in people’s personal lives that are impacting work? These are obviously not questions that IC practitioners are equipped to address head on, but we can and should serve as key partners capable of raising red flags and connecting the dots between A and B.

TRUDY – Great piece Jenni! As we support organisations and communicate in IC we do tend to forget these areas that all lead to belonging, connection, psychological safety and the needs featured in the hierarchy. It’s all important focus as we aim to add value and perhaps even elevate the industry. These help us to shape messaging and activities to truly engage people. I think it’s also a challenge to leadership and how they plan to look after people or set the culture in these times.