Remember the days when we all wanted to grow up and we continually told everyone, ‘When I grow up, I want to …’? And we even ate many vegetables in an effort to grow up and fulfill this dream! This desire is part of our old brain, the one that has been around the most and the one that has instinctive nature, to grow and to reap the fruits of that growth. We view growth as a fulfillment of our existence. Growth is central to human nature, individually as well as at an organizational level.
It’s no wonder that Abraham Maslow in 1943, when writing about all the things that motivate humans in his Human Theory of Motivation, placed self-actualization on the top. His classification of human needs is broken down into five categories. They are listed below in the order of basic to highest.
Physiological (breathing, food, water, sleep)
Safety (physical and health security, employment security, family security, property security)
Belonging (friendship, family, intimacy)
Esteem (self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others and by others)
Self-actualization (creativity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts)
The two most basic needs, physiological and safety needs, are considered basic needs. The three higher needs belonging, esteem, and self-actualization are considered growth needs. The highest need, self-actualization, may be thought of as living at the full potential or to be fully human. His theory states that one needs to have a lower level need fulfilled before the person can pay serious attention to a higher-level need. In other words, a lower level need would dominate a person and when it is fulfilled, a higher-level need would start to dominate the person. Thus, a person must first address his or her physiological need before safety needs, and so on. If you notice, the answer to, ‘When I grow up, I want to …’ does not come into existence unless the person is fully self-actualized. Pursuing employers are all looking for and have big salaries ready to give to employees who have self-actualization dominating them so that they can be their most creative and solve complex problems all the time. Many bestseller self-help books have been written about helping people satisfy this very need.
But when we look around and see people who are clearly self-actualized, many of them come from backgrounds that don’t seem to have supported all the lower needs prior to that person being self-actualized. For instance, Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, Oprah Winfrey, J. K. Rowling, and many other successful people actually had very humble beginnings. This makes us think that it can’t all be true that all of the lower needs must be fulfilled before higher needs are fulfilled. And this exactly was the criticism Maslow’s Human Motivation Theory faced.
In 1969, Clayton Alderfer modified Maslow’s theory and even simplified it. He argued that human needs can be classified into three groups as below.
Existence - Maslow’s physiological and safety needs
Relatedness - Maslow’s belonging and esteem needs
Growth - Maslow’s self-actualization
Strikingly, Alderfer also had the same order of human needs as Maslow’s theory. He also placed growth as the top need, the desire for personal development. Alderfer argued that these needs can be addressed and fulfilled simultaneously. As a person fulfills a lower need and progresses to a higher need, he or she experiences satisfaction and progression. And as he or she is unable to fulfill a higher need he or she feels frustration and regression.
Great organizations today motivate their staff by helping them address all of these three concerns proposed by Alderfer simultaneously. They support their staff’s existence by providing them with monetary compensation and benefits to enable them to provide food, shelter, clothing, and healthcare for them and their families. They create an environment and culture within the organization for the employees to experience respect and give respect, boosting each other’s esteem. They form interest groups for like-minded employees to build their sense of belonging and relatedness. They put in place corporate policies to protect their staff from emotional or sexual abuse. All this is to satisfy the needs that Maslow and Alderfer formalized. Their staff, in return, give them their best creativity and problem-solving abilities. They take them to the moon to hoist their nation’s flag, create mind-boggling gadgets that we call smartphones, discover new animal species in the deepest seas, arrange single atoms together to form their organizational logos, all with a sense of gratitude to the organization that enable them to realize their full potential.
So, if you are in the business of motivating people to help them achieve their full human potential, how can you assist them achieve that state? Of course, there are many ways of doing so. One of the most powerful ways could be to take the initiative to simply feed the crave of knowledge and growth. As they grow, they feel satisfied and experience progression. As a by-product, you also get a more educated and better trained workforce to solve the corporate challenges of tomorrow. But perhaps the greatest reward is that you get to see the glee on their faces as they achieve their childhood dream of ‘When I grow up, I want to …’.
It is imperative to help corporate employees achieve their full human potential in order to benefit from their best creativity and problem-solving skills. For corporations to stand out from other corporations in today’s intense labor market, it is not enough to only address the employees’ existence and relatedness needs and ignore the growth needs. Employers catering to satisfy the growth needs stand to benefit greatly, especially if they are looking for knowledge workers in a knowledge economy. Continuing formal education is a great way to satisfy growth needs of knowledge workers seeking intellectual growth culminating in tangible results.
Dr. Assadullah is an executive and a senior technology architect at Accenture Federal Services and a professor of software engineering at University of Maryland University College. He has a baccalaureate degree in Computing Science and Mathematics from Ohio Wesleyan University, a master’s degree in Computer Science from New York University, and a doctorate in Computational Sciences and Informatics from George Mason University.