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Where Do You Fall on Maslow’s Hierarchy?


We often talk about Maslow’s Hierarchy in terms of our students. We ask ourselves, “Are they getting what they need at home and on campus?” And why do we do this? Because we know that if their needs at the bottom of that pyramid aren’t being met, they are going to have a really rough time succeeding at our institution. Well today, we’re going to flip that and talk about whether YOU’RE getting your needs met. Why? Because we tend to forget that the frameworks that we use to support students also applies to us and our teams. If you’re not getting your needs met, the chances of you being able to effectively support your team and your students is absolutely going to be compromised.


Last week Alicia and I were at MO-KAN-NE’s annual conference. For those of you not in the know, MO-KAN-NE is the Missouri-Kansas-Nebraska Chapter of the Educational Opportunity Association (EOA). So, we had the privilege of hobnobbing with lots of TRIO & Gear Up folks.


On Thursday, the breakfast plenary speaker hit on a few theoretical frameworks, including Maslow’s Hierarchy. Alicia and I were doing a session that afternoon on Gallup’s Employee Engagement Hierarchy, so I was already in the mindset of thinking about the needs of professional staff members. So, I started thinking of how Maslow and the Q12 overlap. And as he was talking about it in relation to students and their development, I naturally started thinking about how this applies to y’all.


Before I dive into that, I want to do a quick refresher for you on the hierarchy itself. You know, just in case it’s been a while since grad school. Maslow’s Hierarchy hinges on the idea that there are five tiers of human needs, and each tier builds on the previous ones. The lower four levels consist of what he calls “deficiency” needs. Those are divided into basic and psychological needs. The top level is known as growth or self-fulfillment needs. Per Maslow’s theory, the needs at the bottom levels of the hierarchy have to be filled or satisfied before you can move up to the next level. Now Maslow later clarified that ALL of the needs on these levels don’t have to be 100% satisfied to move up to the next level of needs, but as we go through them, you’ll see how lower levels form a foundation for higher levels.


The bottom level focuses on Physiological Needs like breathing, food, water, shelter, clothing, and sleep. We often worry about students who are homeless or can’t afford food. We set up emergency housing and food banks on campus. When students aren’t getting enough sleep, we talk to them about how important it is. We tell them how not getting enough sleep negatively impacts their grades and overall wellbeing. You’ve probably felt a bit of how this plays out when meetings encroach on lunch time and the hangries take over. Now you most likely have access to food, but not being able to consume it at appropriate times can be extremely distracting and absolutely impact how you show up at said meeting. Physiological needs are the absolute minimum required for us to be successful at anything else in our lives.


The next level up is Safety & Security. So, we’re talking about your health, employment, property, family, and social ability. We encourage sick students, whether physically or mentally, to go to the doctor and to take care of themselves. Why? Because we know sick students aren’t going to do as well in school as healthy ones. You need money to survive – think back to level one – so employment is typically necessary unless you’ve won the lottery or inherited a vast fortune. As far as property goes, you certainly don’t need to own vast tracks of land, but can you afford the things you need to be successful like a computer, reliable transportation, etc.


Next comes Love & Belonging. Do you have friends, family, intimacy, and a sense of connection with them? We know that students who have strong connections with other folks on campus with other students, staff, and faculty are more likely to stay and thrive. How many times have you met with students whose parents are pressuring them pursue a career they don’t really want to do? That sense of love and belonging is so strong, they often defer to their parent’s wishes because they think their parents won’t love or accept them. Sure, there’s often a financial component as well – see Safety & Security – but that sense of belonging is crucial.


The next level is Self-Esteem. We’re talking about things like confidence, achievement, respect of others, and being a unique individual. When we think about a student’s higher ed experience, we typically think that this is the time for students to find their own identity apart from their parents. This is when they’re developing the skills and knowledge they need to grow in their own competency and become their own person. They need all of these things to do that.


Then finally, at the tippy top, is self-actualization. This is where we switch from the deficiency needs to growth needs. Again, the lower four levels are the needs people have to satisfy to some degree to move to the next level. At this level, we’re talking about things like morality, creativity, spontaneity, acceptance, experience purpose, meaning and inner potential. Basically, once you have a strong foundation from meeting your needs on the lower four levels, you can focus on becoming all you can be.


As we go through our lives, different experiences may move us up and down this hierarchy. When we move down, we need to focus on meeting the needs at that level for us to move back up again. For example, if you lose your job your sense of Safety & Security will be negatively impacted until you find new employment. Or if you have a big failure that wounds your Self-Esteem, you need to make sure you have opportunities to regain that confidence before to work your way back up. It’s not a straight line up the pyramid because life is filled with changes, but when lower-level needs are suddenly left unfulfilled, it means that there’s a gap that needs to be filled before you can focus on those upper-level tiers.


Again, we so often think of the importance of this for our students, but what about you and your team? Alicia and I talk to many supervisors in higher ed. I’m also in a Facebook group for folks thinking about leaving Higher Ed. It’s a very negative space. As someone with Positivity in their Top 10, I can’t spend much time there. Between our conversations and what’s posted online, I know that there are a lot of you struggling. Specifically, struggling to meet the needs outlined by Maslow. But because we’re all “growed up,” we just think of these things as work problems. Work may very well be the catalyst for this, but at the core it’s really a needs issue. And the problem with that is the more needs you don’t have filled, the less energy you have to serve your students or anyone else in your life.


So, I want you to think about how the stressors and struggles you’re feeling are impacting getting your foundational needs met. Here’s a few things to think about as you decide where you’re showing up on Maslow’s Hierarchy…


  • If you’re reading this, you’re still breathing. But when you’re stressed, that breathing tends to be shallow, which keeps you stuck in fight or flight – aka your sympathetic nervous system. That means your parasympathetic nervous system can’t get online to allow you to rest and digest. That means you’re not letting your immune system and other basic biological functions activate to allow you to show up to be your best.


  • Are you getting enough sleep? Or are you so exhausted and stressed from work and possibly trying to keep things together at home, that you don’t get nearly enough? Sleep is foundational for humans at every age. It also impacts your ability to show up at your best.


  • I’m going to assume you can afford food in general, but what’s the quality of that food? Are you nourishing your body, or are you so rushed and/or exhausted that you don’t have time or energy to eat things that are healthy? Or maybe you don’t feel like you have time to eat at all.


  • How’s your overall health? And I don’t mean whether you feel sick right now. There’s a difference between being not being sick and being well. I’ve talked to way too many folks who have chronic illnesses or just don’t have the time or energy to do the things necessary to keep them in good health. I’ve talked with folks who’ve had things like shingles and strep throat multiple times in one year. That’s because their health has been compromised from stress.


  • I’ll wager – pun intended – that while some of you are employed, it isn’t actually fulfilling your Safety & Security needs because you have to work another job to make ends meet. Or maybe you don’t need to work multiple jobs, but do you constantly feel like you’re on the verge of losing your job. Maybe it’s because everyone keeps saying how terrible enrollment or retention is. Maybe there’s talk of downsizing. Does all of this fear make you feel like you can’t set healthy boundaries or say no, because you might lose your job?


  • I know almost all of you have family and friends, but is your need for Love & Belonging being met if you have to work so many hours you have zero time or energy to spend time with them? Or if you’ve moved for your job, do you have time and energy to make new friends or find a partner? You can technically have friends and family, but if you never get to see them it’s hard to feel that necessary sense of connection.


  • How confident do you feel at work? If you’re being given unreasonable amounts of work or are caught in a culture that says it’s not okay to have healthy boundaries, you might very well feel like you’re not very confident in your abilities to do your job well. We hear from countless supervisors who question whether or not they’re up to the task, even though they get little training or support. My sister went from getting great annual reviews to “needs improvement” because they had to downsize and her choices were leave or do two people’s jobs. Even though on some level you know that what’s being asked of you is impossible, it can still negatively impact your sense of confidence and competence.


  • If you’re constantly juggling endless amounts of work, do you feel a sense of achievement? Or do you just feel like you’re barely holding your head above water?


  • Are you showing up as the unique individual you are at work? Can you focus on the things you do well and be your authentic self? Or do you feel like you have to be everything to everyone? Maybe your thoughts and opinions don’t seem to matter. Or maybe you work in a culture that thrives on politics and fear, so you don’t dare bring your authentic self or ideas to the table.


Now those are just a few questions you can use to help gauge where you are on this hierarchy. I’m sure you can think of more questions or examples from your own life of where there are gaps that desperately need to be filled. I’m guessing that for many of you, the answers are going to be a bit of a bummer. But I think we need to realistically take stock of where we are in order to see what we’re not getting and how that’s impacting our lives.


I didn’t want this to be a long episode, but I did want to get you thinking about YOUR needs. You KNOW how important all of these are for student success. Why wouldn’t they be just as important for YOUR success or for your team? And, if your job is to support students, what is the cost to their success when you ignore the foundational pieces of your own wellbeing and wholeness? If your needs aren’t being met, it makes an awfully weak foundation for anything you do, including your job.


But the point of this episode is not to dwell on the negative. The much more important question is now that you know, what are you going to do to change things? How will you change your systems and habits to ensure your needs are being met. Are your talents showing up for you in ways that help get these needs met or that get in your way? And how can you reframe and refocus those talents to fill these gaps? When your confidence has been is shaken and/or your stress levels keep you in fight or flight, it’s easy to fall into a sense of learned helplessness. Too many of you just keep pushing through thinking, “It is what it is,” or “hopefully things will change soon.” But you can start making small changes NOW that will have a profound change in your energy and in bridging some of these need gaps.


As you’re reflecting on all of this, start by identify ONE need that isn’t being met in a substantial way. Then find ONE way to start to close the gap. We like to say go big or go home in our society, but that takes too much energy. And, as we’ve talked about before, it’s not even how we’re wired to operate as humans. So, start small and be consistent. The important thing is to keep moving forward because you deserve to have your needs met too. You NEED to have your needs met, or everything you’re trying to accomplish will be significantly less that what the authentic, self-actualized version of you could do.



If you don’t know where to start this journey, Strengths University is here to help. We offer individual coaching that can help you identify what’s going on with your talents, help you develop reasonable action plans to help you move forward, or to talk through challenging situations. And enrollment is open for the summer cohort of the Supervisor Strengths Institute. It’s an 8-week program designed to help you better understand your talents, be a more effective supervisor, and decrease your stress so you have more energy to focus on yourself and your life outside of work. You can find the link to register and more information about the institute here https://www.strengthsuniversity.org/supervisorstrengthsinstitute


And until next time, stay strong.

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