As the “father of management” Peter Drucker pointed out, 21 century is the century of knowledge economy. For a business to thrive in such economy, the most important capital is not physical nor fiscal but human. Who can recruit and retain the best minds in town will be the winner of the game.

Even in an economical downturn like now, while the unemployment rate in United States has gone over 10%, talented people still have plenty of opportunities awaiting them and they ARE making the move. They are not scared of the weak job market. They don’t care about the job security. Because they have a totally different needs than people who are worrying about keeping their jobs in the hard time.

The great psychologist, Abraham Maslow, published a famous theory called “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” more than 50 years ago in 1943. That theory reveals to us the fundamental and universal human needs.

This theory organizes human needs into five categories, physical, safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization.

Physiological: breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, excretion

Safety: security of body, of employment, of resources, of morality, of the family, of health, of property

Love/Belonging: friendship, family, sexual intimacy

Esteem: respect of others, respect by others

Self-actualization: morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts

These needs are predetermined in that order of importance, often depicted as a pyramid. “The higher needs in this hierarchy only come into focus when the lower needs in the pyramid are met. Once an individual has moved upwards to the next level, needs in the lower level will no longer be prioritized. If a lower set of needs is no longer being met, the individual will temporarily re-prioritize those needs by focusing attention on the unfulfilled needs, but will not permanently regress to the lower level.”

In another words, if we would like to engage and motivate talented people, we have to satisfy ALL their needs, from low level to high level.

Here are some examples what tips we can use to satisfy various levels of needs of the talented employees:

  • Physiological:
    • No sex harassment
    • Comfortable work environment
    • Pay fairly with a good compensation strategy
  • Safety:
    • Play by rule, set the clear boundary at the first place
    • No finger pointing, don’t blame good will
    • Award creativity,
  • Love/Belonging:
    • Treat people nicely – Equally, Flexibility of work time, Respect, Intimacy (friendship, family), Fairly
    • Team atmosphere: Create the team (physical tokens, like flags, songs, rituals e.g. weekly meeting), Inclusive, Sharing, Help each other, Protection from outside blames
  • Esteem
    • Establish ownership: Specialist, Owner of an functional area, responsibilities, Expertise
    • Contribution: being listened, participated in decision making
  • Self-actualization
    • Challenge: Throw challenging works
    • Vision: Clear vision of the future, whole picture
    • Progress: Career path, growth planning, achievements, honors, awards
    • Honor: External feedbacks, Marketing, Ads.

Most importantly, a good manager should assess the right level of needs of his individual team mates. Some people may not be paid fairly. Some are paid well but may be worried about his/her job security. Some may feel safe but may feel isolated and doesn’t belong to the team. Others feel loved but not respected. He/she would like to participant in the decision making process. More senior people may feel stagnant in career and would like to move upwards.

An important aspect of the Maslow’s theory is that satisfied need won’t motivate people any more. Only the unsatisfied needs motivate. That’s why understanding people’s level of needs is the key. Continuing to tend to the low level needs after they are satisfied, e.g. raising the salaries after they are already above market level, won’t help. In the meanwhile, neglecting the lower level needs is also dangerous. Putting a lot of responsibilities to an under-paid employee is a fool-proof recipe to get a resignation letter on your desk.

The talented people are the most valuable assets to our organization. Retaining them requires open conversation with them to find out their needs and thoughtful efforts to satisfy their needs. Maslow’s theory is there to help.