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Taking on a New Team? Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs May Boost Your Success

The topic of taking on a new team has multiple facets. We have talked about the emotional impact it has on employees and how new managers should approach their first days leading people. But taking on a new team can offer traps that even experienced managers can fall into.

In the past few months, I had the opportunity to observe several manager changes in big and small teams. I, myself, recently took on a new team. And while trying to understand why some of those leadership shifts were more successful than others (and to prevent myself from making some particularly stupid management mistakes), I kept coming back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Maslow’s theory is well-known (and probably even a bit worn out) in management studies. It is one of the most foundational theories used to explain motivation. And while there are no doubt more sophisticated theories, with its simplicity and straightforwardness, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has a versatility that has practically turned it into a pop-culture object.

Maslow poses that people have various needs which need to be fulfilled in a consecutive manner, with the more basic needs always coming first. Thus, one has to be fed and clothed before they can think of joining the community theater group we keep inviting them to. And one usually needs to have a place to live before they decide to run for president.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs
Source:Shutterstock

Now let’s see how we can translate Maslow’s pyramid into steps that will turn us into management rock stars next time we take on a new team.

Physiological needs at the workplace?

At the base of the pyramid sit the physiological needs. In life, those are our needs for food, shelter, sleep etc. In organizations, those are usually interpreted as reasonable compensation, good working conditions or sufficient work breaks and rest time.

If you can influence the team’s compensation or workload at the get-go, by all means, do that. But don’t forget about some other basic necessities that may significantly impact your new team. Ensure they have enough knowledge, training and the right tools to do their job.

Making their daily work easier will forge an immediate path to your new team’s trust. And at the same time will lead quickly to improved team results.

The fundamental need for security

Having your manager change raises a host of emotions, but maybe the most prevailing one is the sense of insecurity. Many questions and fears go through your team member’s minds. They wonder if they will keep their jobs. Suppose you will be kind to them and support them. If you will have reasonable expectations towards them. Or for teams who have endured much change – if you will even stick around.

You can take various actions to create a sense of safety and stability within the team.

  • Setting clear expectations
  •  Being open and transparent about yourself as a manager and a person
  •  showing care and genuine interest in the individuals on the team
  • Standing up for the team

These are all great steps to create structure and predictability and deliver the simple message “I got you,” which is crucial for your team in the early days.

A team means “belonging”

The third layer of Maslow’s pyramid relates to the sense of belonging and love. While love at the workplace may prove a bit inconvenient, a sense of belonging to the team and organization is crucial for happy and successful employees.

One of the biggest mistakes I have seen insecure managers make is to try and break the bonds within the team. They seem to erroneously think this will help them build relationships with their preferred team members more easily.

But “divide and conquer” is never a good strategy when it comes to teams. Sooner or later, it will come back to bite you, and by that time, you will most likely have lost the synergies brought by teamwork.

We spend most of our days at work, and if our basic need of belonging is not met, we will feel constantly unfulfilled.

And sometimes, you may find that you have inherited not a team but a disparate group of individuals. And you don’t need Maslow to see that one of the first things you need to do is facilitate relationships among your colleagues.

By creating opportunities for them to work on joint projects, rely on each other and have fun together, you set the foundations of a true team. And my experience shows that these are usually the first actions that your new team will notice and appreciate. That’s how strong the need for belonging is.

The significance of respect and recognition

The importance of recognition is widely discussed in management literature. Provide recognition for small and big achievements. Privately or in front of a more extensive audience. In real-time or on special occasions. Make sure that your new team knows that you see their work and appreciate their efforts and accomplishments.

However, this tier of the pyramid does not relate only to recognition but also to respect.               

When you take on a new team, it may be very tempting to start pointing everything that’s broken and try to fix it immediately. Believe me, I fight that temptation daily (and not always successfully). This is, of course, very desired in the long run and likely exactly what you were hired for. But you need to tread lightly and make sure that you do not belittle your team while trying to make improvements.

“Start, stop, continue” is a great tool that can be used to evaluate a team’s activities and come up with practical improvement ideas. And that sounds great, doesn’t it?

However, I have seen it being “weaponized” by new managers who immediately jumped into it within their first weeks without taking the time to collect more informal information about the team, their work and their needs.

Invariably, this was seen by the team as a slap in the face and a clear and insulting statement: “You are doing things wrong.” Not a great start for these managers…

On a similar note, try not to disparage your predecessor. Even if you don’t think the best of them, never forget that your new team used to follow their previous leader and to bring him or her down would inevitably be perceived as disrespect for the team as well.

Self-actualization in the workplace

At work, self-actualization can be expressed in two main ways.

On the one hand, as a leader, you should ensure that you provide career and professional growth opportunities for each of your team members. Once you have secured that their more basic needs are fulfilled, you should understand what drives each individual on your team. What their career aspirations and learning needs are, and how you can support them to achieve those.

The other side of self-actualization at work is related to finding meaning in what you do. You should embrace your role as a meaning-maker and support your team members in discovering their purpose in the workplace. This is incredibly rewarding both for you and for the team.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as an instrument for success

Taking on a new team is very exciting. New people, new relationships, new challenges.

It is an excellent opportunity for personal and professional accomplishment. But also, a chance to fail if you do not consider the team’s needs or go too fast.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a great tool to structure your efforts and pace yourself when taking on a new team.

1 thought on “Taking on a New Team? Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs May Boost Your Success”

  1. Hi Marta, I think this is more important than ever before as younger generations are more focused on these things when deciding on taking a new job or staying at a current employer. They don’t want to just work for money. They have more needs that they feel matter more. We have to be able to understand that to grow our companies today. Thanks for the insights!

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