self actualisation

Reaching the state of self-actualisation at work

The feted American psychologist Abraham Maslow must be turning in his grave. So many armchair philosophers have mutated his revolutionary theory of psychological health known as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, so I apologise for causing one more subterranean shudder.

by Nick Band

This time, I am gently easing (not crow-barring) the theory into the world of work to discover any guidance for employers as they struggle to retain staff. Maslow uses a pyramid chart to make his point, with the base representing basis needs and the tip denoting what he calls “self-actualisation” or self-enlightenment.  His point is they you will not achieve this high point of contentment unless you move successfully through the supporting phases.

So, let’s start at the bottom – the supporting structure that allows employees to begin this journey of towards realising their full potential. Maslow refers to this level as physiological needs such as air, water, shelter and sleep. In my version, this level is all about having a decent salary which allows the employee to sleep and eat at a reasonable level. No-one is going to progress at work unless this very basic need is satisfied. That niggling resentment that they are not being paid a fair amount for the work they do, is a handbrake on progression.

The next step is what Maslow labels “safety needs” such as personal safety, employment and health. In my model, safety refers to having a safe and pleasant working environment.  Is my chair broken? does my computer work? Am I being bullied?

Satisfying these basics needs is the only way up. And you would be surprised how many employers fall at the first two hurdles.

Moving up, we reach “love and belonging” which, in Maslow’s world, refers to relationships. Love and a sense of connection. It is easy to see how this translates into the workplace. It means a friendly and inclusive culture- one which supports and not hinders progression. It’s about saying hello and goodbye. About celebrating birthdays and, importantly, saying “well done”.

The penultimate level is esteem. Respect from your peers, status and recognition. It’s about trust and freedom. This needs little translation for the workplace model. Respect for the opinions of your team. Trust in their abilities and giving them the freedom to make decisions.


Maslow’s nirvana was “self-actualisation” -highest level of psychological development, where personal potential is fully realised after basic bodily and ego needs have been fulfilled. It sits right at the top of the pyramid and denotes a state of fulfilment and contentment.

In the workplace, it can be used as a way of describing people who are happy in their space. They are well rewarded, recognised and confidently taking on new challenges. People who have reached this state, know their limitations and capabilities and can live with them. Maslow does not go as far as aligning it to the higher transcendental states that can be reached through meditation, but it is not far off this kind of oneness with one’s inner self. Few people make it to this top level and they certainly never will unless all the other building blocks are in place. It is sometimes described as the place where your ideal self meets your actual self.

It is worth reading this list of characteristics which will help you spot the self-actualised person in your office!

Thanks to Maslow, we can see a path of progression at work – a clearly signposted journey for everyone. Read my other posts.