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The Hierarchy of Needs

Until very recently, I taught a motivational class for directors, managers, supervisors and front line employees at our organization. The purpose of the training was to help management find ways to motivate their staff, for the purpose of increasing productivity and retaining workers. The first third of the training included the history of work, national surveys of what people want from work, and a quick look at psychologist's take on what motivates people in the workplace.

The training was developed by someone high in our administration. When it was assigned to me, I felt a strong obligation to deliver the training in the original form. In the early days, the class was presented during an economic downturn when nobody was getting raises and department budgets were cut. I wondered how long I could try to sell the idea that money doesn't matter much if people are happy at work. Suddenly, the person that developed the training left our organization. I felt the freedom to use updated, expanded research, along with the feedback that I was getting in the classroom, to develop a new way of presenting the information. I expanded the discussion on psychologist Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to help people think about themselves and their place on the pyramid, and to consider where their employees were on the pyramid. It was key to motivation.

There is some controversy about the pyramid and Maslow himself expanded it over time, but there is no argument that everyone needs physiological needs met. We need the basics to stay alive: food, water, shelter and sleep. Anyone, at any time, even if they reach a position of prestige, can slip down the hierarchy. People living paycheck to paycheck are the most vulnerable, but an illness or negative life event can affect anyone. Thanks to the corona virus, tens of thousands of people in 2020 find themselves unemployed and back to the base of the hierarchy of needs. I've come across cartoons on the internet that show the most basic need, more basic than food and water, as toilet paper. Yes, it is hard to find toilet paper in any store. At some point, I trust that toilet paper will again be plentiful and food and water will again be our most basic need.

Andrew Yang, last year a presidential hopeful, promoted universal income. He called it the "Freedom Dividend." This blog is not about politics. What struck me at the time was here was someone on the national stage, pointing out that there are people that cannot consistently and reliably provide for their most basic physiological needs. They cannot reach the first level of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

Over time, our organization began to roll out a basic living wage for entry level employees and made adjustments for other employees. As the economy improved, it was a survival measure needed to retain people. Once that was accomplished, the work to further develop employees was the challenge. However, now the second lowest level, Safety, is the immediate challenge in the era of Covid-19. How businesses structure their model to protect employees and customers/clients will forever change the work landscape. When that challenge is conquered (it will be hard but it will happen) I am confident that the new normal will include the pyramid, motivation and innovation. We will emerge from the darkest hour and reach for self-actualization again.

Be well. Peace.

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