How Maslow works at work

A year ago I was in what looked like a great job- from the outside.  However, on my ‘inside’ it felt wrong. For at least the last 6 months I spent there I felt unchallenged, dissatisfied and conflicted.

Intuitively I just knew this job was all wrong. When I began to dissect exactly which needs it couldn’t meet, Maslow’s classic hierarchy gave me some clarity.


Whether you’re thriving in your current role or changing careers, mapping your experiences to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs offers plenty of food for thought.

Maslow’s essential premise is that we’re hardwired to work towards being the best versions of us. In career terms this means we’re motivated to pursue meaningful work that does more than meet our basic needs for safe shelter and sustenance. People and organisations that value this fundamental link between work and what Maslow calls self actualisation are most likely to build positive, contributory workplace cultures that enhance the lives of everyone they touch.

So here’s my question.

How does your work measure up to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs?

To help you answer I’ve unpacked each level in the context of career and proposed a series of simple check ins.


Meeting basic needs
Maslow’s hierarchy begins with our most basic biological necessities. We must satisfy these before we move onto addressing higher order needs. Your workplace meets these needs if it’s clean and safe, pays you a living wage and provides the technology and tools you need to work efficiently. 

For the most part in first world countries like Australia, these fundamental conditions are legally protected.

Basics check in
Does this job give me the essential resources I need?


Being safe
Maslow ranks physical and emotional safety and security as our second basic need. In career terms these are interesting concepts. Working in an organisation where culture and practice guard against physical and psychological harm is enormously important to feel safe in your job, and if you’re to move to Maslow’s next level.

While legislative protection of our rights is strong at this level, organisational values and ethos, and clear policies, procedures and codes of practice largely define how safe we feel at work.

Safety check in
Am I protected from any kind of harm here?


Belonging and connecting

Maslow ranks our need to belong as the first level of psychological need. Friendship, intimacy, affection and love underpin a genuine sense of belonging. Feeling isolated and unsupported at work is a major roadblock on any journey towards professional and personal fulfilment or as Maslow describes it, self actualisation. 

Working and contributing in healthy, high energy teams that value diversity matters here. Being mentored and encouraged by our managers also feeds our sense of belonging.  Sharing positive, accepting relationships as well as office space will help you meet Maslow’s third level of human need. Feeling that we belong kick starts our sense of job satisfaction.

Belonging check in
Do I ‘fit’ here? 


Full esteem ahead
Esteem sits fourth in Maslow’s hierarchy. This is our sense of being valued and respected for our mastery and expertise. Esteem or self esteem is inextricably linked to the confidence and satisfaction we derive from doing things well. It’s also feeds our sense of belonging.

Self esteem shows in how you present yourself at work. It sets the stage for your interactions with colleagues at every level and shapes your potential to grow within and beyond your organisation.    

Esteem check in

Are my expertise, experience and input valued here?



Being yourself- actually
Self actualisation is the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy. While this might look like an end point, a sort of personal growth nirvana – it isn’t. Self actuated people rarely rest on their laurels. Maslow described them as highly motivated problem solvers who contribute their energy and mastery to supporting the greater good. He noted acceptance, empathy, openness and a centred sense of purpose and direction among their signature qualities and stated that,
“each of these people had somehow managed to find their core-nature that is unique to them, and is one of the true goals of life."

How many of us understand and embrace our uniqueness I wonder?

As a career coach I work with clients to uncover and explore careers that align to their talents, skills, interest, values and motivations. We look for roles that fit their need for ‘big picture’ purposeful work where they can fulfil their potential.

Workplace cultures that support self actualisation reap the enormous benefits that flow from granting staff high levels of trust and autonomy. Allowing people to apply their skills and knowledge to making genuine and significant differences in others’ lives has the power to transform individuals and organisations. 

Self actualising check in

Can I apply my skills and experience to making a significant difference here?



Meeting our unmet needs

Sadly, a 2013 national survey on Australian job satisfaction revealed that around a quarter of us were dissatisfied at work. Of course these are lots of reasons why this is the case and we need to address them as individuals and as organisations.

Perhaps part of the answer lies in broadening organisational focus on staff engagement and retention beyond meeting basic needs.  

Maybe we need to start much earlier than this. Could we transform our workplace cultures by infusing career education in schools with the purpose driven principles of self actualisation? Could vocational training providers and universities pay more attention to helping us master skills and knowledge in ways that match our unique gifts and interests?

People, places and productivity all suffer from the ripple effects of long term job dissatisfaction. Conversely, supporting people to become their best personal and professional selves goes to the heart of building a healthy, high performing organisations.

Making Maslow central at work in our rapidly evolving world is everyone’s responsibility - career educators, coaches, managers and you.


What really motivates us at work?

For leaders and managers in organisations everywhere, this lively thought provoking animation on what really motivates us is definitely worth a look.

By Jo Green, Career Change Coach

I know what it feels like to be lost in your career. I also know that when you find what you love, heart and soul, your life changes. I work every day with people who are reshaping their current careers, starting new enterprises or searching for a new direction. Basically I help people who don’t like their job to figure out what to do instead!

As a Careershifters and Firework Advanced Certified Coach and experienced career changer myself, I can help you figure out what fulfilling work looks like for you.

Drop me a note to organise a free 20 minute consultation to chat about your career change and how coaching could help.