Employee engagement is key to a high-performing organisation—that much is clear. But how can you ensure that your employees are engaged? Motivational theories provide some clues. Let’s examine the two most well-known ones.
Maslow’s pyramid of employee needs
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, illustrated by Maslow’s pyramid, classifies all human needs in order of importance. When applied to employee needs, this framework gives interesting insights and pointers.
At the base of the pyramid lie physiological needs (e.g. food, water, clothes and shelter), immediately followed by safety needs. In terms of employee happiness, these needs refer to salary, benefits and job security.
The next layer features love and belonging, which are essential to human happiness. In the professional context, this refers to relationships with management and peers as well as the overall company culture.
After the first three needs comes esteem, i.e. being recognized for one’s efforts, receiving input and getting career advancement opportunities.
Finally comes self-actualization and self-transcendence. This highest category refers to needs such as personal skill development, work challenges and work meaning.
Even though some job satisfaction factors fit neatly into one of these categories, most are multidimensional; thus, they can fit into several. For example, career advancement opportunities are linked to being recognized for one’s input (esteem) and to being paid more (physiological). In the same way, work/life balance contributes to one’s family and social life outside the office (love) and to one’s personal development (self-actualization). Therefore, it is not always easy to determine which factor is more important to overall employee satisfaction. Herzberg’s theory addresses this issue to some extent.
Herzberg’s dual-factor theory
Maslow’s theory offers an order for the importance of needs. Each layer needs to be satisfied before attention can be given to the next one; in other words, working on skill development programs if an employee’s salary is below market level would have no impact on the employee’s satisfaction levels.
There is also a linear quality to the happiness concept in Maslow’s pyramid, i.e. the more an employee’s needs are satisfied, the higher their overall happiness level will be.
Herzberg’s dual-factor theory questions the above principles, stipulating that some factors influence satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Those sets of factors are different, and they can be addressed separately. The theory refers to them as motivational factors and hygiene factors.
Hygiene factors do not increase satisfaction or motivate employees, but they have a direct impact on dissatisfaction resulting from their absence. Those factors describe the job environment and include salary, benefits, job security, company policies and work conditions. If these factors are bad, employees are dissatisfied. But if they are good, employees are not dissatisfied but not motivated either.
On the contrary, motivation factors deal with the job itself and impact motivation; these factors include challenging, meaningful work; recognition of one’s input and responsibility.
Hygiene factors are roughly covered by the needs at the base of Maslow’s pyramid, while motivational factors are closer to the top. Herzberg tested his theory by surveying a population of workers and found that his assumptions were confirmed: motivating factors had very little impact on job dissatisfaction and vice versa.
Employee satisfaction criteria and evolution
Even though both theories date more than 50 years back, to a time before employee engagement was a key topic, they are still relevant, explaining a lot of what we see in employee satisfaction surveys today.
For example, the last SHRM survey on employee job satisfaction and engagement report mentions hygiene factors among the greatest contributors to job satisfaction:
- Respectful treatment;
- Trust in management; and
- Job security.
They are also among the greatest factors that make employees leave their company. In light of these motivational theories, it appears that you must get these factors right to maintain your employees’ minimum satisfaction levels.
In the same report, it is interesting to note that needs at the top of the pyramid and motivational factors are ranked increasingly important year after year. Opportunities to use skills were mentioned as being very important by 44% of those surveyed in 2004 and by 58% of those surveyed in 2014.
How to increase employee engagement
The first step to handling any problem is to understand it in your context. What is your main concern? Are you dealing with employee dissatisfaction, employee motivation or both? Use employee interviews and surveys to gather information. Motivational theories and available surveys and research give clues as to what to look for and how to interpret the results you get.
Once you have your initial findings, assess the situation from your employees’ point of view. That is, map your employees’ experiences in your organisation and identify friction areas. List all the problematic factors and their possible solutions in order of importance.
Choose what can be addressed quickly and get some quick wins. Build a plan to solve the rest of the problems, assessing costs versus benefits to justify and get the resources you need to make more ambitious changes.