Complex Made Simple

Exclusive: This psychologist cracked the code to employee happiness 76 years ago

A psychology theory from 1943 holds the key to achieving true employee happiness.

American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy that helps managers cultivate happiness among employees From providing survival needs to your employees, to finally helping them self-actualize - the hierarchy is a comprehensive tool for managers Every aspect of the workplace and the manager-employee relationship fits into the hierarchy's levels, proving itself an invaluable roadmap for understanding employees

In the hustle and bustle of the business world, be it at the corporate or startup level of enterprise, it is often easy to get carried away by the daily grind. Oftentimes, employees factor in as nothing but a means to an end – a tool hired by companies to get results. More often than not, the companies that think this way fail.

This line of thinking has become antiquated. As office culture surrounding employees began to change in the 20th century, triggered by changing mindsets and the eventual dawn of the Information Age, ‘employee happiness’ – so to speak – began taking precedence.        

“It’s simple, really. Happy employees work harder,” Weam Khattar, Chief Happiness Officer at Dent De Lait Eco, told AMEinfo.

Happiness pays dividends 

Indeed, a study conducted at the University of Warwick reported that productivity among happy employees increased an average of 12%, and reached as high as 20%. In ever-increasing competitive sectors, where a 1-2% increase in profit mark-ups or sales can make all the difference for a business, a 20% increase in employee productivity can be game changing.  

A 2017 Gallup report found that 69% of US employees were unhappy or unmotivated at their jobs. Another Gallup report shows that these same unhappy employees cost American businesses $300 billion yearly, Steve Spring writes for Medium

So how does a company motivate employees?

It might be easy to think that simply increasing an employee’s salary would be enough help motivate them, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. 

To explain why this doesn’t work, we need to set up some groundwork first. 

In 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed the theory of the “hierarchy of needs” in his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.” This piece of psychology theory has factored into many management and leadership courses. 

It goes as follows: 

Image: Introduction to Business ebook

Humans have 5 levels, or hierarchies, of needs. These need to be satisfied from the bottom upwards. 

Level 1 – Physiological needs: These are basic human and survival needs, such as food and shelter. 

Level 2 – Safety needs: At this level, employees are looking for some more base-level needs, such as physical safety and job security. They don’t want to live in fear of losing their source of livelihood, putting them and their families on the street.  

Level 3 – Social needs: Humans are sociable creatures, and thus want to feel part of a team, part of a community at their jobs. They need a sense of belonging and acceptance.

Level 4 – Esteem needs: Employees need to feel respect and accomplishment in their life (and at their jobs) as the next natural step in their development. Praise and recognition from managers and others in the firm contribute to the sense of self-worth.

Level 5 – Self-actualisation needs: “What a man can be, he must be,” Maslow said. The ultimate level in the development of the individual, it relates to achieving one’s true potential. A manager that helps their employees achieve their goals and aspirations brings their staff to this final level. 

It is essential to work from the bottom upwards on employee needs, but this line of thinking makes it clear then that money alone, which would fit in level 1 (as it primarily equates to providing food and shelter), is not enough to improve employee fulfilment and happiness. (Being rich might falsely fulfill the esteem needs of level 4 with the prestige money brings.)

In the below statement sent to AMEinfo by Sawsan Ghanem, Joint Managing Director at Active Digital Marketing Communications, you can identify a pattern in her line of thought. 

“From experience, we’ve seen the impact on employee morale, productivity & creativity when [staff’s] basic needs are met, and senior managers cultivate an open & collaborative space which leads to higher performance, happier teams and healthier bottom lines.”

The way she highlights basic needs first (levels 1 and 2), and then mentions senior managers cultivating “an open and collaborative space” (level 3), it is apparent that Active’s managers are subconsciously fulfilling their employees’ needs according to Maslow’s hierarchy – and it works.  

In the aforementioned quote to AMEinfo, Chief Happiness Officer Weam Khattar’s full statement on happy employees went as follows: “Happy employees work harder. They are more committed and more passionate for work than unhappy ones. In the end, they’re doing it for themselves.”

Khattar’s classification of the happy employee here is referring to an employee at level 4 or 5 of the hierarchy, at which point the employee’s needs for self-actualization merge with the business’ objectives, and their interests become fully aligned with that of their company. This is the goal of any manager or HR department to achieve, and obviously the hardest to reach. 

In the end, Maslow’s hierarchy is no rocket science, but it does require a nuanced and attentive manager to fulfill. 

The beauty of Maslow’s hierarchy is in its simplicity  

Now that we’ve established Maslow’s hierarchy, it becomes inevitable to slot in aspects of the workplace that contribute to employee happiness into his pyramid. The thing is, most of these tips and workplace culture changes don’t have to cost a significant chunk of a company’s budget. 

Take the workspace for example. In recent years, we’ve seen Silicon Valley companies embrace the colorful, playful workplace as the standard. Companies like Google and Facebook take this philosophy to heart, and have become famed for their lively offices. A simple new coat of paint can make all the difference.

“I believe one of the most important elements for employee happiness is providing an engaging and active work environment where the team has all the right tools they need to do the job at hand, whether it be a place to brainstorm with colleagues, an area that promotes concentration, or a space where they can just take a moment and relax,” Medy Navani, CEO and founder of Design Haus Medy, told AMEinfo. “It is probably the easiest and most cost-effective way to increase employee happiness in the long run.” 

A word of warning though. Emulating Google’s workspaces, if merely as an empty gesture, will do your company no good. 

“Though I strongly believe that the Facebook and Google’s [philosophy towards workspaces] is the way to go, I have seen companies who adopted this approach (or any variation of it) but failed to adopt the culture needed,” Sadek El Assaad, CEO of Zeder Group, told AMEinfo. “If an owner or CEO is still in the controlling mode and not in an empowering mode, I am not sure any amount of paint or cafeterias will make a difference.”

This unique workspace approach is a hybrid of sorts in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy, fitting into the distinct levels 2 and 3, but more in level 3

But forget about beanbags and meditation rooms. These cost money, you’ll say. 

The thing is, simple niceties everyday cost your company a total of $0.00. Kindness and empathy for your employees will take you a long way (level 3, level 4) in ensuring positive, productive office environments. 

Happiness goes digital

Companies still struggling to grasp these simple concepts are at luck. Technology has evolved to allow for assessment of employee motivation and morale, providing managers with timely reports updating them on their employees’ progress. 

El Assaad explains: “With employee engagement, AI is now able to monitor the individual engagement of employees in real time and with the ability to predict any decline before reaching the point-of-no-return mark i.e before the employee enters “internal resignation” mode whereby he/she starts performing the minimum requirement of their job and ends up leaving the company eventually. Ahead of such an outcome, AI-powered programs will alert HR to interfere and correct the anomaly before it is too late.”