Several years ago, I led an organization of over 200 employees. Our work was challenging, and employees worked tirelessly to accomplish complex tasks daily. I wanted to show the team that I appreciated their efforts toward excellence and tried to set a good example of leadership. On Friday afternoons, after particularly challenging weeks, I got enough food delivered to feed the entire organization. I watched proudly from my office as the team gobbled up large, cheesy pepperoni pizzas and chatted about weekend plans before heading out the door. I gathered up the empty boxes for the trash as everyone left and patted myself on the back for being an engaged and thoughtful leader.

I walked through the building after a particularly challenging week to greet the team with food once again, wearing a smile on my face. While opening the boxes, I heard a loud and unsuspecting voice say, “Pizza again…can’t we get anything better than that around here?” I resisted the urge to confront the ungrateful employee and realized that I wasn’t necessarily cultivating an engaging leadership environment; I was just delivering a lot of pizza!

Cultivating an environment of engagement, growth, and innovation requires more than just having good food in the cafeteria or a foosball table in the breakroom. Engaged leaders make a connection to the fundamental growth needs of workers. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides a basic model for a discussion of employee engagement.

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who focused on studying human motivation. His hierarchy demonstrates a framework to help us understand motivation from its most basic components to higher-order needs that truly keep people engaged and satisfied. It is comprised of a five-tier pyramid that describes human needs starting with food and clothing, safety, belonging, esteem, and finally, self-actualization. Needs must be met starting from the bottom of the pyramid and moving upward.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Here’s the catch: motivation decreases as the four components, or needs, at the bottom of the pyramid are met. At the top is the pyramid is self-actualization, or growth. Motivation increases as personal growth needs are met.

According to a 2022 Gallup poll, employee engagement continues a slump. Only 32% of workers are actively engaged in their work. We can blame the pandemic on these numbers, but there is more to the story. This statistic parallels the fact that a younger generation of employees is steadily increasing their footprint in the workplace (by the way, they expect an investment in their personal and professional development).

To keep employees engaged, we must invest in their future and growth. As pension plans continue to fade from existence, workers need to know that you are still willing to commit resources toward their future if you want to be part of their long-term career plans. This means more than just making the office “a fun place to hang out” or having pizza parties on Friday afternoons. It takes a long-term commitment to help them maximize their potential.