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The View from the Top: Climbing the Pyramid of HR Self-Actualization

In 1943, Abraham Maslow, an American sociologist, published a paper in the journal Psychology Review, where he proposed that humans address their needs in a hierarchical manner. Illustrated, Maslow’s theory uses the pyramid shape with specific groups of needs populating each of five levels. Someone moving up the pyramid must first fulfill a level in order to proceed to the next. In his paper, he asserted humans address essential needs first (food and shelter, for example) before moving to psychological needs, followed by needs of self-fulfillment.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

At the time of its publication, Maslow’s theory received a fairly positive reception; over time, it’s become a staple of psychology classrooms. Because of its broad applicability, it’s seen in the boardroom as well. For the human resources profession, Maslow’s theory offers valuable insight into how HR professionals are able to truly unlock their own potential to more effectively serve the employees in their organization.

Let’s take a look at how Maslow’s hierarchy of needs relates to the functions and goals of HR by examining the HR implications at each level.

Level 1: Basic needs

Maslow's hierarchy of needs level 1: basic needs

The basic needs at Level 1 are essential to existence. For HR, that means fulfilling only the most fundamental requirements of their role. These include:

  • onboarding
  • scheduling
  • payroll
  • benefits enrollment and administration
  • HR-related record-keeping

Level 2: Safety and security

Maslow's hierarch of needs level 2: safety

While Level 1 is primarily performative, at Level 2 things begin to get a bit more cerebral. Here, with all necessary functions executed, HR is now able to expand into areas that naturally require some higher-level decision-making. These can include (but certainly aren’t limited to):

  • expanded trainings to upskill the workforce or reinforce safety and culture
  • transforming compliance from a reactive activity into a proactive, ongoing process
  • mining data to create reports that identify and analyze workplace trends

Level 3: Belonging

Maslow's hierarchy of needs level 3: belonging

In the psychological sense, Level 3 is where people begin to explore selflessness and work to develop the feelings of others. For HR, this translates into efforts that focus on imparting that sense of belonging and psychological safety to the employees HR is tasked to serve. In practice, this includes activities such as:

  • employee surveys
  • team-building exercises
  • performance discussions
  • skip-level meetings

Level 4: Self-confidence

If Level 3 is about psychological safety, Level 4 builds on that safety by adding confidence, allowing HR to move boldly upward. When an HR department operates at a high level, it can become a strategic partner with the C-suite, and Level 4 is where that interaction manifests. An HR team operating at Level 4 is, among other things, redefining its purpose and objectives by undertaking functions such as:

  • coaching and mentoring
  • professional development
  • diversity and inclusion initiatives
  • driving the digital transformation

Level 5: Self-actualization

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Level 5 - Self-actualization

Self-actualization means something different to everyone, but from the perspective of human resources, an HR team operating at Level 5 is not just trusted and working alongside the C-suite; it’s an essential part of organizational leadership. HR professionals operating at this level are more than just the payroll-and-handbook people. They are:

  • employer brand champions
  • advisers to the C-suite and strategic leaders
  • advocates and vanguards for digital transformation

Understanding where you are is the first step in any journey. Are you trying to move past basic functions like onboarding and payroll, or are you pioneering the digital transformation with innovative programs and tools that take employee engagement to the next level? Take our quiz today and see where you land on the HR hierarchy of needs!

DISCLAIMER: The information provided herein does not constitute the provision of legal advice, tax advice, accounting services or professional consulting of any kind. The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal, tax, accounting or other professional advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional adviser who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant to your particular situation and for your particular state(s) of operation.