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Retention is difficult, often because the key drivers that keep employees from leaving can be hard to uncover. Even when it seems like every need is met — even when employees earn competitive salaries, engage in challenging work, and collaborate with supportive team members — turnover can be a problem.

But perhaps the mystery of retention is not as deep as it seems. The psychological and sociological factors determining whether employees stay or leave may lie beneath the surface, but someone has already done the work of bringing these factors to light.

When evaluating and refining retention efforts, organizations need only refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Maslow’s Hierarchy: The Basics

In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote “A Theory of Human Motivation,” a paper which aimed to explain what people needed in order to feel motivated. According to Maslow, there are five levels of needs people must have met in order to feel fully motivated. In ascending order, these needs are:

  1. Physiological: food, water, sleep, etc.
  2. Safety: of body, of employment, of resources, etc.
  3. Love/belonging: friendship, intimacy, familial relationships, etc.
  4. Esteem: confidence, achievement, respect from others, etc.
  5. Self-actualization: morality, creativity, problem-solving, etc.

According to Maslow’s theory, people can only become self-actualized — and, thus, self-motivated — if the preceding levels of needs are met. For example, a person who isn’t getting enough sleep won’t be self-actualized.

Though complex, the hierarchy of needs is key to cracking the code to retention. By ensuring that employees’ needs are met at all levels, organizations can boost retention, productivity, and their bottom lines.

Maslow’s Hierarchy: In Depth

In the following section, I’ll explore how Maslow’s hierarchy intersects with the workplace. Because of my position with the Talent Management Oversight Directorate of the Marine Corps, many of my examples will draw on the military. However, the takeaways should apply equally to most if not all civilian organizations.

1. Physiological

Most physiological needs are met outside the workplace, but the failure to meet them can have drastic consequences for in-office performance. Workers who are not getting proper nutrition or sleep are less capable of performing at their best for sustained periods of time.

Night-shift workers are especially at risk of sleep problems. As outlined in a 2016 study from University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, working the night shift can disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythms, leading to insomnia and fatigue. The study also found that night-shift workers were more likely to think of quitting, whereas day-shift workers reported higher job satisfaction.

The study did identify ways to mitigate the harmful effects of working the night shift. Having greater than 11 hours off between shifts, as well as more frequent health checks, can help night-shift employees maintain their well-being and happiness on the job.

A good night’s sleep is also critical to military performance. Unfortunately, recent studies suggest that less than half of all service members achieve the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep per night. This is due to several cultural barriers, including ignorance to the value of sleep, the stigma associated with needing more sleep, and the high operations tempo found in deployed units. Leaders particularly struggle to obtain adequate sleep, and as a result, they may be sleep-deprived when making critical decisions. Given the cultural nature of the barriers to adequate sleep in the military, cultural shifts may be in order to mitigate the damage that regular sleep-deprivation can have on performance and retention.

2. Safety

Workplaces can be dangerous physically or emotionally to employees. While OSHA standards and local safety regulations mitigate much of the threat of unsafe workplaces, recent major news stories show that sexual harassment is a particularly prevalent workplace safety issue that still needs addressing.

According to Dr. Brenda L. Moore of the State University of New York at Buffalo, a 1981 report found that 42 percent of women working for the federal government had been sexually harassed in the workplace. In addition to the harm that sexual harassment does to the employees who experience it, it also damages the company in which it occurs. For example, Moore also reports that, in 1988, researchers determined sexual harassment cost the US Army $250 million in terms of lost productivity; higher absenteeism; separations and replacements; and transfer, legal, medical, and counseling costs.

To the military’s credit, it has taken steps to address sexual harassment, and Moore notes that a 2003 survey found sexual harassment in the military decreased significantly between 1995 to 2002. However, sexual harassment does still happen within the military, and these instances prevent service members from feeling safe. As mentioned above, this is not only harmful to the individual service members, but to the military as a whole. People who do not feel safe in the military will decline to reenlist, damaging the military’s retention rates.

3. Love and Belonging

The next level of need deals with community, or as Maslow puts it, love and belonging.

Community is particularly difficult for people to find today. Traditional social bonds are weakening. As Simon Kuper writes for Financial Times, churches are less well attended, families live further apart, and 39 percent of adults in the US live alone. Work, too, is losing its sense of community. Workers often jump between jobs rather than stay at any one for an extended period of time, and Kuper notes automation will likely worsen this trend in the years to come.

When workers feel less of a sense of community at work, they are less likely to be retained. However, there are strategies employers can implement to recreate that sense of community and, hopefully, encourage greater retention among employees.

One way to do this is to pay attention to the Dunbar number. Developed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the Dunbar number refers to the number of people with whom a person can maintain stable relationships at a given time. Based on his research with primates, Dunbar was able to determine that a human’s Dunbar number is 150. According to Dunbar’s theory, any time a group exceeds 150 members, the group will start to divide and fall apart, even if the group members have incentives to work together and are socially groomed to do so.

What does this mean for the workplace? In simplest terms, you could try to keep each individual workplace under 150 people. At that number, all employees can get to know one another on a personal level, leading to stronger bonds between employees. The clothing manufacturer GORE-TEX actually does this, choosing to start new factories rather than grow existing factories beyond 150 employees.

A closer look at society shows that the number 150 is present in a multitude of communities. Wikipedia maintains 150-175 administrators. Hunter-gatherer societies and religious communities like the Amish also tend to adhere to the Dunbar number. Even the military keeps the Dunbar number in mind: Infantry companies are composed of less than 150 soldiers to ensure all members share an emotional bond with one another.

4. Esteem

Creating esteem where it does not exist can be difficult because esteem tends to develop slowly and organically. However, leaders can and should try to support the development of mutual esteem between employees, as well as self-esteem for individual workers.

Employees with low self-esteem are not only less productive on their own, but they can also spread their negativity to others, creating a toxic environment. In leaders, low self-esteem can manifest in micromanaging and other behaviors that hinder employees from achieving their best performance.

Getting to know your employees and understanding what they bring to the team can help promote both self-esteem and respect between employees. A common saying, often attributed to Albert Einstein, goes: “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” The same concept can be applied to promoting esteem within the workplace: If employees are put into roles in which they continually struggle, they will suffer from lower self-esteem. If, on the other hand, leaders align employees’ duties with their strengths, employees will succeed more often. Continued succeed builds self-esteem, which in turn encourages future success.

Another way to facilitate self-esteem in workers is to create goals that are realistically achievable. By breaking down large, seemingly impossible goals into smaller, achievable ones, leaders can set employees up to succeed. Additionally, consider starting new teams, employees, and projects with an easy win. This will grant an immediate confidence boost to all involved.

In the military, awards and ribbons are used to showcase an individual’s accomplishments and history of hard work. Though the intention is good, this system is not without its flaws. The process of granting an award frequently takes a long time, which means service members may have moved on or left the military entirely before receiving the award. For an award to be most effective, it should be granted as soon after the achievement as possible. This solidifies in the service member’s mind the connection between performance and reward.

When awards are given out for participation rather than hard work, they also tend to lose meaning. At the end of deployments, enlisted service members, noncommissioned officers, and commissioned officers often receive awards relating to their rank rather than their achievements overseas. If an award’s intended effect is to encourage the recipient to continue performing at a high level, then participation-based awards defeat the purpose of recognition in the first place.

Make employees feel good about themselves by showing appreciation for specific instances of hard work. This should be done immediately and in a large group setting. Public displays of recognition help to build both the employee’s self-esteem and the esteem of the employee in the eyes of their colleagues. Both kinds of esteem are critical for retention.

5. Self-Actualization

The highest-level need of Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualization. Expressed simply, this means having a sense of purpose in life.

According to Dan Pontefract, the CEO of the Pontefract Group, employees typically adopt one of three mindsets in the workplace. Pontefract defines these mindsets as follows:

  1. Job mindset: Performing transactional duties in return for compensation and not much else.
  2. Career mindset: Focused on increasing one’s career growth by advancing salary, title, power, team size, and/or span of control.
  3. Purpose mindset: Passionate, innovative, and committed to a meaningful and engaging workplace that serves and benefits all stakeholders.

The purpose mindset most closely aligns with Maslow’s notion of self-actualization. When employees have a purpose mindset, they form stronger relationships with coworkers, make a greater impact on the business, grow more as individuals, and are more likely to stay with the company for the long term.

In today’s world, an employee’s work is often removed from the end result. To give employees a sense of purpose, leaders need to help workers grasp the bigger picture. In other words, leaders need to show employees how their work directly affects the well-being of the company, their colleagues, and the people the company serves. People can only understand the purpose of their work if they can see the fruits of their labor.

Leaders can also promote purpose by supporting employees’ efforts to grow. Employees feel more valued — and like their work matters more — when they operate in cultures that support continuous learning and advancement. Once an employee does advance, give them a chance to mentor others. Seeing someone else grow as a result of your teaching is a great way to gain a sense of purpose.

A Matter of Life and Death

Supporting employees along Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is ultimately about more than just company success and employee retention: It’s a matter of life and death.

A study of heart-attack patients found that the biggest predictor of long-term survival was not diet, exercise, or air quality, but the number of quality friends a patient had. When your workplace focuses on meeting employees’ hierarchies of needs, it can help furnish them with the kind of lifestyle and environment that is conducive to a long, healthy life.

Moreover, on a much larger scale, military retention is a linchpin in national defense. To be successful, the military needs to recruit and retain qualified personnel. By paying attention to Maslow’s hierarchy, the military can create an environment in which service members want to make long-lasting careers.

Maslow’s hierarchy is a crucial factor in retention for both military and civilian organizations. A person subject to a toxic environment of any kind will not be interested in staying in their job, military or otherwise. Financial incentives, such as reenlistment bonuses or additional pay, will only work to a certain point. To achieve and maintain high retention rates, the military and civilian organizations should strive to meet people’s needs when it comes to physiology, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Individuals working under such conditions will want to stay in their jobs for years to come, and service members will likely reenlist following their initial contracts.

Kevin Johnston is a contractor and technical writer working for the Headquarters Marine Corps Talent Management Oversight Directorate. The views expressed within this article are his own.

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