Self-actualisation – the tip at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – might be easily recognisable to anyone who remembers their first class of business studies, but helping employees reach the pinnacle of this well-known pyramid is a trickier task.
Here we’ll explore the practical steps organisations should consider to promote self-actualisation.
First a quick refresher on Maslow’s description of self-actualisation: “What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualisation … It refers to the desire for self-fulfilment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualised in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”
The regular condensed translation in the business world, usually reads along the lines of ‘provide employees with a challenge and the opportunity to reach their career potential’. But, of course, that’s easier said than done, because it’s not just any challenge or any opportunity that will help individuals to self-actualise.
To guide us in our understanding, we can rely on self-determination theory and its explanation of intrinsic motivation. This is an important link, as we consistently see in Peakon data, that intrinsic factors have the strongest correlation to high employee engagement and satisfaction. These include: accomplishment, meaningful work, recognition, growth, and autonomy.
An environment that concentrates to a greater extent on extrinsic motivators, is thus, less likely to lead to self-actualisation. For example, competition between team members for bonuses or promotions, leads individuals to work not from a standpoint of achieving what they care for, but instead feeling achievement only to a relative degree – in comparison to others.
Such an environment can also prohibite another essential condition for self-actualisation – the ability to accept oneself for one’s strengths and weaknesses. Managers winning the trust of employees, enabling them to freely communicate insecurities, without a fear of negative consequences, is key.
Enabling employees to shape their individuals goals and career development is the logical next step. Being in control of one’s destiny is perhaps the most obvious route to self-actualisation, yet often organisational hierarchies cause employees to deviate from the path their intrinsic motivations would take them on.
Take the example of a designer – whose intrinsic love of creating and shaping new things has lead her to a level of excellence. In reward, the she’s given a promotion to the role of design manager as a recognition for her talents. Such a role change could greatly diminish the intrinsic motivation that enabled her great work – she’s unlikely to be intrinsically motivated by what’s required to be a good manager, as this is vastly different to what drives a good designer. In fact, last year Gallup reported this phenomenon as the leading cause of poor management in the US.
Fully involving the employee in the shaping her career, may instead have lead the employee to suggesting a different route that met her desires, while avoiding stagnation.
This leads us to our final condition for self-actualisation, a consistent feeling of progress that enables employees to have frequent “peak experiences”. That same excellent designer may – instead of going down a management route – have wished for more autonomy to develop radical new ideas on her own initiative. Similarly an outstanding customer service worker could find his love for delivering a great experience is nurtured by being involved in product management work.
Self-actualisation might seem difficult to define, and even harder to achieve, but flexibility in career paths, combined with honest, open, and ongoing conversations between managers and employees are the greatest tools we have to help employees reach the zenith of Maslow’s pyramid.