Why everyone’s talking about Maslow’s pyramid

 In Culture, Uncategorized

Over the past few weeks, we’ve interviewed over 20 business leaders, across a range of industries, to ask them about how their teams are coping with COVID-19, issues raised by Black Lives Matter and the plethora of other changes that have taken place this year. 

As you can imagine, these are big conversations, and we’ve found that referring to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has helped illustrate where organisations are right now and how they might change for the better. 

So we want to share some of these insights.  It may help other senior leaders understand what’s happening and how we can change behaviours within teams by influencing the social identity of the team

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a pyramid that is one of those pieces of psychological thinking that gets commonly used in everyday business talk. Although not always agreed upon in academic circles, the thinking is that you need the basic needs at the bottom before you can move up and work on the more complex psychological and self-affirming needs. And this seems to be ringing true for many of the organisations we’re talking to about where they are with COVID. 

Many people within your team may be at different levels, and sometimes this can prevent the team from working cohesively. We are looking at this from a group identity perspective rather than where the individual members may be within the hierarchy. 

We’ve looked before at how our external social groups influence our identity. We act differently at home to how we do at work or down the pub with friends.  It’s why someone we think we know quite well can ‘seem like a different person’ when we bump into them in an unfamiliar setting. 

Applying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to social identity helps us gain a better understanding of where our teams are right now and where they need to be in the post-Covid workplace. The group identity of the team influences individual behaviours. So making sure the basic and psychological needs are met within the workplace will shape the behaviour of the team as a whole. 

Basic Needs

Basic needs are the things in life that make us feel safe, like having a place to live, food to eat and being able to pay the heating bill.

“Usually these needs are met at home,” explains Annayah Prosser, Sustainability Researcher, “but because of Covid, our teams are feeling threatened more than ever before.” 

For some members of your teams, they are no longer having their basic needs met within the workplace as they did previously. And this can have an impact on being able to perform at their best ability. 

“If you’re in a secure job, the salary gives you the safety and security at the base of the pyramid in pre-Covid times. 

“Whereas now, salary alone isn’t necessarily making you feel safe. You have groups of people where it is difficult to go outside because they are in an at-risk group. And at the same time you have other people who do not feel the same threat because they see themselves within a safer group with less chance of suffering severe symptoms of coronavirus,” explains Prosser. 

What this does is create two opposing group identities. People who are at high-risk or those who care that their actions put those at high-risk in danger; and people who continue as normal. 

Prosser continues to explain that when “groups form around moral practises, each group believes they are doing the right thing and other groups the wrong thing. Therefore, social identity comes from the actions of the group, and this can cause dangerous stereotyping.” 

Psychological Needs

As we work up the pyramid if people who feel threatened form groups based on their moral practices. Then these social identities become polarised. 

For example, creating two polarised social groups around the moral practise of wearing a mask. For one group, wearing a mask shows that they care about those around them as they know mask-wearing protects others. At the same time, they may see non-mask wearers as selfish and uncaring. Even resorting to mask-shaming without considering if that person is in an exempt group. 

However, those refusing to wear masks may see those who do as overly-compliant and unable to think for themselves. And therefore don’t accept the social benefits of wearing a mask. 

Once social identities are at these polarising points, the language you use can force people to reaffirm their beliefs and further highlight the differences. 

To help people form social identities that are less polarised, you need to help them see what they have in common. 

“We have more in common than that which divides us.” – Jo Cox

Nudging behaviour changes

Take the example of plant-based food in restaurants. People are more likely to order from the main menu than request a vegan menu. By requiring meat-reducers or flexitarians to ask for a vegan menu, the restaurant is asking them to identify with a different social group. This may turn the customer away from ordering a plant-based meal. 

To present it as an option alongside the meat gives the customer the chance to make small behavioural changes rather than label themselves within a social group defined by moral actions. 

“It makes the practice more accessible,” says Prosser, “than if you have to identify with a particular group based on moral practice. The same applies to the workplace. Instead of discussing how to reintroduce your immuno-compromised staff back into the office, you can make working from home an option for everyone.” 

Within this, it is important to reduce certain group identities at work, such as those who go into the office and those who work from home or those who have been furloughed and those who have not. 

How to prevent polarising teams

To prevent polarising social identities, you need to have open discussions. 

As Prosser explains: “It is very tricky to move opposing social groups closer together. But broadly, you need to make sure there is room for complexity within discussions. 

“This is where the work by Making Change Happen comes in. You need your teams to have a level of psychological safety where they can discuss what’s going on in their lives, what they are struggling with and the areas where they need help. Your teams need to talk to each other and to people they disagree with to find common ground.”

In fact, Sandie Bakowski, founder of Making Change Happen, goes further to say that: “it is key that teams feel able to have safe conversations and not ‘present well’ or ‘virtue signal’. When people feel unable to talk, nothing changes. 

“And organisations need to be able to have those difficult conversations about representation, gender, race and equality. There needs to be a safe space for all the team to be able to share their views and for them to listen to others. Even if those views are unpalatable because to do otherwise will only push people further away from each other.”

When you meet the basic needs of your team, and they feel safe to have these conversations, then they will start to form social identities based around the unspoken rule book for the workplace. 

It’s at this point you can start to move forwards to the tip of the pyramid where the real magic happens for your teams. 

Self-fulfilment Needs

It is this top area of the pyramid, the self-fulfilment needs, that once met will create the high performing teams. 

This cannot happen unless your teams feel safe and create those middle-ground group identities that your organisation needs.  For the team to move up the pyramid, they need that high level of psychological safety where they can have complex discussions. 

Once they reach this point, they identify with the codes and rule book of the team while they are at work. It results in innovative thinking, feeling safe to speak up and saying when things can be done better. 

This is when you see the shift in team culture, and it becomes embedded in your teams’ lives. Often overflowing outside of the workplace to create truly sustainable behaviours. 

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