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  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

What Motivates Your Team?

“If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you. If you really make them think, they'll hate you.” Don Marquis

“The test of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there.” James Buchanan

How do you attempt to motivate your employees? Do you even try to motivate?

And how do you maintain high performance? Have you had people who were operating at a very high level, and suddenly that began to erode? Abraham Maslow wondered about this as well. Maslow served as the chair of the psychology department at Brandeis from 1951 to 1969, and while there he presented his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”. Interestingly, his theory was influenced by his early work on monkeys where he noticed that some “needs” took precedence over others!

His work is also interesting because he focused on how high performers achieved that level, rather than focusing on why people were “dissatisfied”. His work resulted in the now famous “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” represented in the graph below:

He theorized that your needs should be met at each level before you could move up to the next level. For example, it is very difficult to focus on anything if you can’t breathe! How many of you have been distracted in a meeting because the room was too hot, or you suddenly needed to go to the restroom?

With the physiological needs met, people begin to focus on the safety and security needs. Is your job secure? Is your family safe and do you feel good about your future?

With these needs mostly met, you begin to focus on love and belonging needs. Did you find a significant other in your life? Do you belong to a church, social organization or are you involved in your kid’s school activities?

Next are the esteem needs. Here he made a distinction between respecting yourself and having confidence, and being admired and respected by others. However, he believed that people needed both.

Maslow referred to these Deficit needs. If you don’t have them, you will focus on them. If you do have them, you don’t really think about it! This is my favorite motivational theory because it lines up so well with real life experience. How many of you have had friends (or yourself!) where everything is going very well. They are happy at work, have lots of friends and feel good about their finances. And then something happens. Perhaps a divorce or illness, but suddenly the persons entire life is thrown into turmoil! They begin to lose focus at work, withdraw from their friends and may even begin to make poor life choices!

Maslow would say that removal of a significant deficit need caused the person to focus almost exclusively on that. Just as a drowning person isn’t thinking about their next meal, a person missing a critical deficit need will not be focused on their job.

This theory requires the manager to look at their employees as complete human beings with lives outside the workplace. If there is disruption in their personal life, it will present at work! The manager also needs to make sure the organization is addressing deficit needs so that the environment itself isn’t causing people to focus on things other than the work!

The theory also requires the manager to have compassion for the circumstances of their employees. If a high performer is going through a rough time personally, be a human being and support them while they sort it out! Don’t add to their deficit needs problem!

I didn’t forget the Self Actualization level. At this level you are the best you that you can be! Various sources I researched stated the Maslow believed that less than 2% of the population ever reaches this level. So statistically speaking, it would be a waste of time to go into detail!

Finally, I understand that there is much more depth to Maslow (or any of the other theories) than can be adequately discussed in a short blog. My purpose in these articles is to provide Project Mangers with a basic understanding of them, not turn them into organizational theory experts.


I am writing this on an Amtrak train returning from a conference in New York City. This was my second trip in two weeks, as well as my second conference where I was a “panel member” on different technical topics. Every time I attend one of these conferences, I am struck by the knowledge and competence of both the presenters and participants. Even though there are often disagreements about the best way to proceed or the positions taken by certain parties, everyone is polite and focused on the issue. Very impressive. I am also struck by awesomeness of NYC! So many people with dramatically different backgrounds all doing something different! And while the city always seems right on the edge of chaos, it all seems to work! And, the pizza is awesome!


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