Why People Stay: How The Digital Age Flipped Maslow’s Pyramid

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Jim Champy

A company’s resident barista handed me a cappuccino as my host described the importance of food to the happiness and productivity of its employees. I was in Silicon Valley, where a company’s culture is considered key to attracting and holding on to people. 

I had a similar experience in Boston, when my host greeted me in the kitchen reception area of a tech company, pointing to free beer and wine. Expansive-thinking about work place accoutrements is not just a West Coast phenomena. 

Times Are Changing

As I drank my cappuccino, I recalled life in my first company - this will date me. We didn’t have a barista or much of a kitchen. We did have a Coke vending machine and a self-serve coffee brewer. Both Coke and coffee were free. That is until our CFO - a very cost conscious and analytical engineer - determined we could no longer afford the free Coke. 

There was an uproar in the company, but no one left. Everyone just put ten cents into the vending machine. People loved their work. That’s why they stayed with the company.

But How?

OK, I understand how taco night can benefit a company and its people. Keeping people fed and near the workplace provides comfort and efficiency - and it also provides an opportunity for people to meet and develop relationships. 

Interestingly, feeding people in the workplace did not begin in the Valley. It actually began in Chicago during the depression, where the basic need for food was not being met in homes. The banks in Chicago built large cafeterias and started to feed their people 3 meals a day. 

My point here is not to knock companies with foodie cultures (I did enjoy that cappuccino) but to highlight the big picture: the emergence of a sense of luxury and play in work environments - from well funded start-ups to Apple’s palatial new headquarters - raises questions about the real needs of workers in this digital age, especially millennials. 

What should companies really be doing to keep people around? 

Did Maslow Have The Answer?

That question was partially answered by Abraham Maslow in 1943 in his paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation.” It’s still where most discussions on motivation begin. Maslow’s theories provide a good starting point for thinking about what keeps people committed to the work of an enterprise. 

The Basic Idea

Maslow argued that we all share a hierarchy of needs, often represented as a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are basic needs - food, water, warmth, rest, safety and security. These were important needs in the industrial age. 

Next are psychological needs - belonging, love, relationships, esteem, prestige, and a sense of accomplishment. 

At the top of the pyramid is self-fulfillment. 

Inverting the Pyramid

I’m not a philistine. I enjoy good food and nice surroundings, but when I hear people promote the importance of what Maslow considered “basic needs” in his time, I get concerned as to whether companies are placing emphasis in the right place to keep people engaged. 

Today, I might invert Maslow’s pyramid and start with the importance of self-fulfillment. People stay committed to an enterprise when, first, they subscribe to the enterprise’s sense of purpose and then believe their work is contributing to that purpose in a meaningful way. 

A Sense of Purpose

Some enterprises, like those engaged in healthcare, are fortunate: they have a built-in sense of purpose that keeps people engaged. There’s nothing like improving the real lives of people to inspire.  Most companies have an implicit sense of good purpose, but it needs to be clearly articulated, together with what the company values. 

About 20 years ago, companies began putting what they believe in on the walls of their reception areas. You sensed the enterprise’s purpose. Now those reception areas are cool cafes or playrooms with pools and ping-pong tables. It’s hard to intuit what the company really does. 


On Psychological Needs

But words and premium coffee and other fun office perks are not enough to keep people engaged. There are real actions that must be taken to satisfy psychological needs. 

First, at a time when so much of communications are digital, paying attention to how personal relationships develop is critical. Workplaces depend on trusting relationships between people. Real conversations between people, and real collaborations are critical. 

Second, I learned long ago that promotions and compensation are important components to a sense of accomplishment. I’ve seen many people believe they were not being fairly recognized - even in companies with flat structures. This condition continues today, especially with respect to women. 

But just throwing stock and money at people won’t suffice. What’s critical to a genuine sense of accomplishment is a fair system of recognition and reward. Having a such a fair system requires a lot of care and attention. 

It’s All About Focus and Authenticity                                           

Food and foosball culture aside, it’s all about where to put focus and resources. Food can be bought. Self-fulfillment cannot. 

To keep people around, companies must inspire, design work to support a sense of purpose, act authentically on that sense of purpose, and create fair reward and recognition systems. 

This focus is especially critical at a time when competition for people is increasing. Automation will reduce the number of people a company needs. But people are still around, and their contemporary needs remain critical to the success of an enterprise.