Employee Loyalty Occurs When Maslow and Dignity Meet

Companies have always desired employee loyalty, however, lately it seems loyalty is becoming more and more elusive. So what’s the real problem? A deficit of dignity.

Ed Eppley
February 29, 2024

Companies have always desired employee loyalty. It’s not only good business to retain and grow people from within, but it also helps in recruiting top talent who will view loyalty as a positive indicator of opportunity and company culture. It is why many companies will tout their employee retention as part of their recruitment process alongside a solid benefits and compensation package.

However, lately it seems loyalty is becoming more and more elusive – and it’s creating friction between company leadership and its workers.

In the past few years workers have been offered flexible schedules, work-from-home opportunities and, in some industries, significantly higher wages to attract or retain talent. And yet there also has been a recalibration of people’s commitment to work (a.k.a. “quiet quitting”), and a growing disinterest in returning to the office.

Some leaders might go as far to say they’ve met workforce demands, but haven’t been rewarded with loyalty they feel is deserved. However, the loyalty answer doesn’t hinge on pay, incentives, or flexibility – although they each play a role.

So what’s the real problem? A deficit of dignity.  

Follow Maslow’s Trajectory Upward

The American psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a theory in 1943 to help explain human motivation. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs begins with basics of survival and builds up on a foundation of physiological and safety needs, moving to social, emotional needs, and elevating to need for greater self-esteem and self-actualization.

While this applies to human motivation, it also has application to how we might think about our people in the workplace.

Think back to when you were new to the workforce trying to cover your basic needs and make ends meet. The first two foundational blocks, from a work perspective, were about securing a job, earning a fair wage and benefits, and performing the work well enough to maintain a paycheck. Once those needs were met, you and others like you looked for a greater sense of belonging, connection, and opportunity. This is still true for today’s workforce.    

It is logical to suggest when applied to work, these first two blocks do not foster loyalty – regardless of how good the pay, how generous the benefits package, and to some degree how strong the culture might be. For some companies this represents the beginning of a false ceiling – or how far they are willing to go on behalf of their employees. But when these attributes can be found elsewhere at greater levels, employees will always feel the temptation to leave.

Now consider the managers and executives who strive to ensure belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization needs are all met. They are the ones leading businesses that are likely to experience greater levels of loyalty.  

To reach those higher levels, leaders can work to make it possible for their direct reports to inject more dignity into their lives. Let me be clear, the first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy are the responsibility of the organization. No individual manager, or even executive (other than the owner) gets to decide the pay range for a given position. That is determined by a combination of the market, the kind of business, and the margins the business creates. Likewise, no organization, no matter how well they meet the basic Safety and Security needs of an individual, will overcome the failure of an individual manager or executive to create the environment that helps their people move up the last three levels of the hierarchy.

Dignity Creates Loyalty

I remember Patrick Lencioni being the first person I ever heard talk about businesses needing to operate in a way that creates dignity for the people who work there. While there are many ways to define dignity, this definition particularly resonates with workforce development:

Dignity – the elevation of mind or character.

This should influence the way you think about leading people. As a manager or business owner, you have an opportunity to create space where people can experience more dignity in their daily lives than they might otherwise. That, in turn, can lead people on a path of discovering and achieving their full potential.

So how do you instill a sense of dignity within your people? Here are three ways you can “elevate the mind and character” of your people.  

1. Demonstrating how new and different thinking contributes to the business. Some managers will focus solely on people doing their job. But those who also encourage people to think about new and better ways to do the job help elevate that person’s thinking and sense of self. When that thinking contributes to improvements or new ways of working, they grow in self-esteem and recognition, and are likely to become better contributors to the business when encouraged to think critically about their work rather than solely performing how it has always been done.

2. “Connecting the dots” on how individual roles create value. People typically won’t see the value of their work unless you show them. And if you don’t show them, they will assume they are a small cog in a big machine. By helping people understand how their work is integral to the company – and the role it plays in creating value that customers are willing to pay for – you’re elevating their mind and helping them think more like an owner.

3. Elevating people by addressing their full potential. Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t reach the top with recognition, respect, and growing self-esteem. To achieve one’s full potential or self-actualization involves disciplines, beliefs, and behaviors that help the individual achieve a purpose greater than themselves. When you give employees the dignity they desire and a reason to believe they can become so much more than they are today – and when leaders model the disciplines, beliefs, and behaviors needed to deliver on the greater purpose – you build a stronger, effective workforce. That produces near-term results while also fostering loyalty for the long term.  

Ask Not What Your People Can Do for the Company…

Actually, you do need to define the work and challenge your people to find better, innovative ways to do their jobs. But those same hard, introspective questions also need to be posed to the leadership team. As a leader you should be asking: How loyal are our people? How hard are they willing to work to achieve our stated goals? How strongly do they believe in what the company is doing? Do they even know our purpose?

I would submit that it is almost impossible to elevate the mind and character of an individual who doesn’t believe in the company or those who are leading it. They won’t see their full potential as being achievable within your organization, either.  

It is why organizational health is so crucial in elevating the dignity that people get from their work experience. You can start by delivering on these three smart and healthy disciplines.

1. Ensuring the executive team is aligned and speaking with one clear, unified voice. This discipline is essential for leading individuals, teams, and the company to achieve their purpose. If not, people will be receiving mixed and inconsistent messages about who and what to follow, which makes it nearly impossible to maximize full potential.

2. Making the company purpose clear. Beyond making money, what are we here to accomplish? What is our “cause”? Who are we here to serve and how best do we do it? Purpose drives the beliefs and behaviors any company holds sacred. It becomes part of the DNA or fabric of the organization. Without clarity on purpose, the human infrastructure is destined to fray.

3. Being intentional about communicating purpose and potential. If you want your people to hear it, embrace it, own it and then share it, you must commit to communicating the purpose and potential over and over. There is no such thing as overcommunicating and there is no timeline in which it stops. A constant and steady drumbeat is necessary. This is how potential becomes reality.

Loyalty is a coveted employer trait, and for good reason. But those who earn it aren’t seeking a talking point for recruiting. They are in constant pursuit of something bigger – personally and corporately – and it is what makes the difference.