Needs. Everyone has them. Everyone is driven by them, whether they realize it or not. Given that the word ‘need’ is a term that is generally overused, and used in an overarching way, it becomes necessary to properly define the term from the realm of scientific purview. Needs can be defined as “deficiencies that a person experiences” (Redmond, 2016, p. 2), while unmet needs are (by logic) considered to be prepotent.
Many scientists have studied the nature of needs (and by association, motivation) for as long as psychology has existed as even a hazy dream concept of a discipline. Among the most prominent of these, Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs that motivates individuals. His proposed hierarchy consists of five different levels of need, starting at low-order basic needs of a biological nature, and ranging to high-order needs that fulfill the complexities of the human mind. Maslow proposed that the only way to progress up the hierarchy would be to completely satisfy each individual level, starting at the bottom and working up, otherwise known as fulfillment progression. The first level is based on physiological needs such as food and water, the second level is safety needs such as shelter. The third level pertains to love and social needs, and is the point in Maslow’s Hierarchy where the transition from physiological to psychological drives can be quantified on the scale. The fourth and penultimate level of the hierarchy has to do with esteem, the perception of success. There is some argument that the hierarchy stops at the fourth level, and that the fifth level, self-actualization, is more of a high-achieving area of the former. Maslow himself stated the hardest level to reach and accomplish is self-actualization, because it “can never be fully satisfied, and once it is activated, it stimulates an even greater desire for satisfaction” (Redmond, 2016, p. 3). That being the case, if only due to the scarcity and facets of completion that the fifth and final plateau of the hierarchy entails, it must stand alone atop the pyramid.
Maslow organized the hierarchy in the manner he did because he “believed that more people are motivated by lower-level needs (physiological, safety) than higher-order needs (social, esteem, self-actualization). In fact, he proposed that very few reach self-actualization” (Redmond, 2016, p. 4).
This experience comes from one of our team members. About a year ago, this individual was interviewing for high-level Executive Assistant positions in a nearby metropolitan area. Before long, she was offered a position as the Executive Assistant to the CEO of a well-known risk management firm. The company was located on the outskirts of the city, so the commute would be 30-60 minutes less than that of many positions downtown. The company was offering her $10,000 less than some other positions, but it had a great benefits package, and her commute would be shorter. She took the job, exempt salary and all.
It soon became apparent that the people with whom she interviewed were not the individuals they had appeared to be, and the company culture was not as advertised. There were several serious issues that had not been disclosed in either of her interviews or before she accepted their offer of employment. First, and foremost among the myriad of disturbing issues to be discovered, she found out that the CEO (whom she would be working with directly) was the son of the Principal (owner) and also married to the COO.
Very quickly thereafter, it became clear that the COO was among the most difficult and exacting colleagues to work with in the company. She had some serious (and unwarranted) jealousy issues, which lead to the COO discriminating against her and treating her as poorly as was feasible, traveling well beyond the fringe of acceptable corporate behavior. She was rude, belittling and demeaning whenever it was possible to be so. After experiencing this awful treatment, the new executive assistant began to ask her coworkers if this was normal. It came as no surprise to the EA that 12 employees were hired and either quit or were fired in the last year, as each of those 12 people did not get along with the COO. The EA was told that anyone who stood up to the COO be summarily fired, ergo, why no one ever stood up to her. She was told that the COO had gone so far as to verbally state in meetings that Maryland was an “at-will” state, and that she could fire anyone for any reason.
It was not uncommon for the COO to use coercion to get what she wanted from the employees. This COO ran the company like a dictator; people were not allowed to converse with each other, she micromanaged and controlled everyone and everything that they did. No matter the context, it was always her way or the door. Then, as if working with her on a daily basis wasn’t enough of a burden, the EA found out that the employees were not allowed to take lunch breaks – not 30 minutes, not an hour, nothing. They were expected to work through lunch, told that they could eat while working. Furthermore, though each employee was allotted 15 days of paid time off per year, it was frowned upon to take off work regardless of the reason (doctor’s appointment, vacation, etc.). Nearly any request for time off would receive a response with a nasty attitude and the possibility of an arbitrary denial.
But for all that, perhaps the COO’s true coup de grace was the attitude of frowning upon any employee who dared to leave work on time – yes, on time. The COO requested that each employee say good-bye to her before leaving for the evening, and whenever the EA did leave at 5:00 PM, the COO’s odd, arbitrarily dispensed condescension would be kindled to her, as if she had done something terribly wrong.
When the EA was hired, she was told that the fourth quarter of the year (October – December) was the company’s busiest season and required “all hands on deck.” When the busy season arrived, she was expected (not asked) and required to work 11-13 hour days, every day. For the entire month of November and December, the employees were required to work mandatory overtime without compensation. During these 11 to 13-hour shifts, they were still not allowed to leave for lunch. Any employees who did not pack a lunch were simply forced to go hungry.
There were cameras all over the office, regularly monitored to the end of catching and punishing the perception of “slothful behavior.” Since the employees were not allowed to converse about anything except work, the EA did not form any good relationships with her peers. Since she couldn’t discuss the COO’s behavior with the CEO (since they were married), or the Principal (since the COO was his daughter-in-law), there was no way for the EA to rectify or mitigate the negative aspects of the situation. The EA endured the maltreatment because she needed the money to pay her bills and her college tuition, feeling trapped by her needs that had to be satisfied, often at the expense of her nerves, wits, and patience. At the end of quarter four, after having working there for 9 months (which seemed like an eternity), the EA was emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted. The mental and emotional abuse, coupled with the ridiculously long work days and two hour commute, was no longer an efficient way to satisfy her needs, and the whole exercise culminated in a terse letter of resignation.
This is case is interesting on two fronts. First, it’s evident that the employee described in the case has a desire for Higher-Order needs according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. Second, the employee has such a desire for Higher-order needs that she is willing to forgo the Basic-Order needs that she has already attained by resigning from the job.
In order to better understand this case and how it applies to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it's necessary to look at it sequentially, in the order of each experience, preferably along the timeline of when they occurred. In this case, the prospective employee sought to attain a position as a high-level executive assistant, working for and with the CEO of a well known risk-management firm. Acquiring this position would satisfy both the baseline of physiological needs, as well as the slightly-above-the-baseline hierarchical need for safety. Having this position would provide income that in turn would be converted into food, housing, clothing and the ability to have a safe environment, the better by which to survive.
Basic-Level Needs: Physiological needs include basic biological needs and the basic subsistence humans need to survive (e.g., food, water, air). One step up the scale, safety includes needs for self-preservation, a safe environment, and protection from physical danger and threat (e.g., shelter).
Once these basic needs were solidified, higher-order needs were the next area of focus. While this area might not have been the initial goal of the employee while at this particular firm, it was in fact the area that ultimately culminated in her resignation. The case study is rife with a multitude of examples on vivid display throughout, in which higher-order needs are jeopardized due to the way the employer operates their business. One sterling example of this could be the COO's draconic attitude regarding workplace chat, not allowing the employees to converse with each other while working. This completely destroys any kind of community in any team setting, and puts an enormous strain on the social needs of each employee. A second example of how higher-order needs were never met is by the simple fact that there was no notable recognition provided to incentivize good work, one of a veritable cornucopia of factors that contribute in the case study to a severely hostile work environment.
Higher-Order Needs: Social needs include needs for friendship, companionship, to be liked and accepted. Social needs are sometimes referred to as love or belongingness needs (PSU, 2016). Esteem needs, building off of the social tier, include the need for recognition and appreciation, along with the respect of others and the respect of oneself. With the fourth tier firmly met, self-actualization becomes a rare reality. Needs in this oft-confused top-tier of Maslow's Hierarchy include needs for self-improvement, self-fulfillment, and personal growth. Although Maslow is probably best known for the concept of self-actualization, it is the least understood of his hierarchy, mostly due to the fact that it is not clearly definable, in the most precise sense. In consideration of the subject as an academic oddity, it is worthy of note that whether the concept of self-actualization is an extension of esteem, or the proverbial nirvana of higher-order need, it is (and will likely remain) elusive from those who would find it in action.
This case helps cement that point, thanks to the poor leadership displayed in the case study. It is excoriating in its detail. In the case of the Executive Assistant, her self-actualization needs were never really realized, due to fact that the employee could never achieve her needs at even the social or esteem levels. The environment created by the COO did not allow for there to be any focus to be put on the employee which would allow for personal growth, instead playing the part of the benevolent taskmaster, expecting gratitude for the token assistance with Basic-Level needs. In a way, though, there is in fact a display of personal growth within the case; the employee realized that the type of environment and lack of culture that permeated her waking life was quite unhealthy. Identifying this, and acting upon it by resigning from the position proves a two-fold analytic caveat to Maslow's idea that Basic needs are generally more important. Sometimes Higher-order needs are far more important then Basic needs. To wit, it is reasonable to suggest that basic needs might be different in the modern era, and that people are willing to get by with less of Maslow's foundation, hoping to land a better share of the higher echelons of the hierarchy in exchange.
The provided information affords insight on many levels of thought and perspective. The foremost of these is the applicability of the case’s description in relation to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. It is unlikely that Maslow himself could have written such an excellent example as the dubious and harrowing tale of the Executive Assistant. Another chief aspect of the initial takeaway material from the case study, though perhaps a bit more abstract, it is important to consider that Maslow created the Hierarchy of needs in 1943; the case description provided is from only last year. The confluence of ideas, and the relevance of both the study as well as the theory demonstrates the relevance within Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, regardless of the 73-year gap since its creation.
Humans are unique in almost every way possible; mental perspective and emotions, especially so. Human complexity could be considered to metaphorically run rampant, through every breathing moment and action of the human condition. In order to address these underlying issues, the situation must needs be properly grasped. The simplicity of Maslow’s Hierarchy does just that. Before asking why a situation might be ‘bad’ or digging deeper on how to fix it, a person must simply determine that it is in fact ‘bad’. By going through Maslow’s steps, the very definition of ‘bad’ or even ‘not very ideal’ quickly diminishes when compared to our case description. And order is made, if not bred from chaos, then at least inspired by it.
In the case study, the first two of Maslow’s needs were shown to be things we’re not always aware of supporting, particularly if they’re not what our individual was looking for when first taking the job. Once every single category of Maslow’s Hierarchy was applied, the result of almost each tier (by the end of job duration) could be legitimately labeled as ‘toxic’. The ultimate resignation of the individual, especially after examining the correlation between Maslow’s theory and the EA’s goals, comes as no surprise whatsoever. In point of fact, it comes as a surprise to the casual reader that any employee would stay there at tall. In the grander scheme, the individual took the job over some others due to concerns that lay ironically close to self-preservation. Ultimately, the EA would end the term of employment still attempting to secure the self-same thing.
Redmond, Brian. (2016) Lesson 2: Need Theories: What Do I Want When I Work? (Angel) Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/sp16/psych484/001/content/lesson02/lesson02_02.html