To “Fix” Performance (and Help Employees), Remember Maslow

Diagram showing the hierarchy of needs based o...

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As I was working with a manager recently, discussing strategies for improving the performance of a good-performing  employee who recently seemed to be “cracking” under the pressure, the “light bulb” went on for me.  In that moment, I was struck by the impossibility of the task — or, at the least, the noble-but-misguided way we were approaching the task.  There we were, trying to fix what appeared on the surface to be a “job performance” problem — never recognizing that the real issue was something far different.  All I could think to say was, “Maslow was right.”

Maslow Was Right

“Maslow?” the manager asked. “The guy in accounting who always gives everyone a hard time about their expense reports?” he asked.  Nope — that guy’s name is Barlow, and … well, that’s a story for another day.  In this case, I was thinking of Abraham Maslow, the psychologist who in the 1950’s came out with his “Hierarchy of Needs.”  First learning about Maslow’s theories in my Management 101 course freshman year in college, I’ve been struck by them ever since — becoming more and more convinced of the truth of his “hierarchy” as the years go on.

Abraham Maslow

Maslow proposed that human behavior progressed through sequential (or hierarchical) needs — beginning with physiological (food, water, breathing) and safety (security of body, shelter, employment) needs, before progressing to higher level needs such as belongingness (family, friends), esteem (confidence, respect, recognition), and finally self-actualization (akin to the Army’s “be all you can be” slogan from years ago).  He proposed that one couldn’t progress to a higher-level need until the lower-level need was satisfied.

Maslow, Applied

While I’ve know about the “hierarchy” for more than 25 years, the truth of it finally hit me like a ton of bricks.  Here we were trying to help someone “self-actualize” his behavior (i.e., perform at a higher level, in order to achieve the most that he could achieve) when he was actually struggling for survival in many ways (i.e., attending to safety needs).  The employee was coming off his second divorce, adjusting to a career change, a move to a new city, intense family pressures (caring for aging parents), resolving financial pressures stemming from all of the above …. oh, and for good measure, adjusting to the shock of a tenant who wrecked his rental property (the home he left behind), and the sudden collapse and federal takeover of the bank where he had all of his accounts.  (Unfortunately, not a word of the above is exaggerated).

Really, what chance in the world was there that he was going to focus on “being all he can be” at his job? He was just trying to survive, day to day.  I should have seen that sooner.

Moving Toward An Answer

The thing is … while this particular employee might be experiencing the extremes in personal issues, I don’t believe that he is all that far from the personal stresses that many employees bring into the workplace every day.  By not recognizing this, as HR people we can end up trying to solve the wrong problem — and often make things worse, by adding pressures to their worklives.

New Directions published statistics indicating that:

  • 92% of employees report that personal problems have decreased their productivity during their working lives
  • 40% of absenteeism is due to depression
  • Depressed employees have up to 70% higher medical costs than those without depression
  • Personal and inter-personal problems cause 65% to 85% of involuntary terminations.

I’m not one who believes that an employer can (or should try to) solve all an employee’s problems.  We’re all adults and we have to be responsible for our behaviors (i.e., the employer isn’t a psychologist, social worker, etc.).  Yet and still, there is surely something meaningful that we can do to help — isn’t there?

Happily, I believe that there is.

EAP‘s: The Best Benefit, Dollar for Dollar

One partial solution, I believe, is for all employers to provide Employee Assistance Programs (EAP’s) as part of their benefits programs.  For those who aren’t familiar with EAP’s, these are generally confidential referral programs managed by mental health providers.  An employee calls an 800-number, explains to the operator the type of issue they are seeking assistance for, and they are referrer to a local provider in that field (e.g., a counselor, psychologist, practitioner, etc.).  EAP’s commonly cover most areas of modern day life stresses, from weight management and quit-smoking counseling, to marital and family counseling, to elder care and legal issues, and many things in-between.

While many employers already provide EAP access to their employees, this crucial benefit is historically under-utilized.  Ironically, the under-utilization probably contributes to the low cost of the benefit (usually pennies or dollars per employee per month).  Many firms work hard to promote EAP services through payroll stuffers, posters, reminders, etc., though lingering stigmas surrounding getting help of this nature still keeps usage down.  The first step, though, is making the benefit available to — and known by — all employees.

Bottom Line

EAP can be a life preserver

The happy ending to this particular story is that, on his own, the employee decided to enter counseling to help himself manage the on-going stresses in his life.  We’re actively working with him, of course, on managing stress and performance at work — but, at least now, he is also addressing the underlying issues.  Except in extreme cases, it is a difficult matter to force an employee to seek counseling.  We can always publicize the EAP’s, though … and hope that troubled employees use their services before homelife issues force worklife issues to be addressed in negative ways. 

We must always keep trying.  Thanks, Dr. Maslow.

4 responses to “To “Fix” Performance (and Help Employees), Remember Maslow

  1. Michael,

    Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has been disproven time and time again by psychological scientists. While the levels themselves may accurately describe human needs, they do not occur in a hierarchical manner.

    For example, people with unsatisfied psychological needs (food, shelter) still engage in and fulfill social needs, esteem needs and security needs. Hungry people make friends and chat with others. Prisoners of war engage in highly spiritual activities.

    The notion that one must satisfy one hierarchy before fulfilling another is simply incorrect.

    That said, it’s obvious that someone with home and personal issues won’t perform as well (it’s not a Maslow thing – it’s a Brain Rules thing). I’m not sure EAPs are particularly effective at addressing those issues.

    I actually think EAPs try to fix problems caused by work. Stress? Interpersonal issues? Long hours, layoff happy cultures and a bad economy may be the causes. Or perhaps there’s just a poor person-job fit.

    I’m sure that’s not always the case, I’m and not advocating that we do away with EAPs altogether.

    What really resonated with me in this post was that the issue isn’t always just that the employee can’t do the job well. It’s often something else.

    I tend to believe it’s usually the organization’s fault (poor selection process, not providing the right resources or communication, etc.).

    What do you think?


    • Chris,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful insights. As I think we might not be as far apart on this as it may seem on the surface, I wanted to share a few thoughts in reply.

      As for the technical aspects of the hierarchy itself, I certainly defer to the experts that you’ve noted as to whether or not individuals can ONLY progress through a hierarchy of needs. (The examples you cite are excellent points, of course). That being said, my observation is that at least sometimes, people “get stuck” on “lower level” (security, etc.) needs which prevent them from effectively moving forward in other areas of their life (such as on the job). That seems to be the case in the individual that I mentioned, at least. Whether this is because of a “hierarchy” or other personal or psychological reasons, certainly could be up for debate. As you noted, though, the larger point is that other factors influence on-the-job issues, and recognizing this as HR people might help us help managers more effectively in certain cases.

      I loved your comment about EAP’s trying to fix job-created stresses. What a great point (I had never thought about that) … and how ironic! Yes — we make available a program (EAP) to eliminate stress that we (the employer) have (often) created in the first place, due to poor selection, poor management, etc. I couldn’t agree more.

      Thanks again for taking the time to share your perspective. It is greatly appreciated.


  2. Hi Michael.
    I think Maslow is a good frame of reference when thinking through associates issues. Whether Maslow is in favor or not, it does offer some insight into what the person’s problem may be.

    As we know, there is no one solution to addressing performance. Humans are complex, human communication is complicated, we as manager’s don’t always know “everything” about a situation. So Maslow, as a guide and possible jumping off point, helps.

    I was working with a client who was trying to figure how one of their top producers, a very talented young lady, had dropped so far down in the production numbers. Nothing seemed to work to get them corrected. One her co workers, much wiser due to years of experience, mentioned that she was like a “second mother to her.” The family was having major challenges, “both parents were not functioning as responsible adults.” As it turned out, the firm’s EAP was the answer and allowed the young lady some space to figure out her next step. This is still a work in progress, but it does show that a company can influence without knowing everything and fixing every single problem. Agree with Maslow or not, still something there that provokes thought and endures .

    Douglas L. Pilarski

  3. Doug,

    Thanks so much for sharing your perspective and experience on this. Great point about the complexity of human behavior. As you noted, perhaps Maslow is at least a jumping off point for thinking about the causes of poor performance more broadly. I’m so glad to know that the EAP was helpful in the case of the young woman that you cited. It can’t solve all problems, but at least in this one case it was helpful — to the woman personally, and, I imagine, to the organization as a whole (insofar as it helped restore a productive employee to good performance).

    Thanks again for sharing.


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